“We started playing hockey because of Britain,” smiles Manuela Urroz. “In Chile, hockey is played by the British schools. It’s why and how I started the game.”
Like many of her team-mates who will line up against Great Britain women at Lee Valley, Urroz was educated at a British school in Santiago and so where better to begin than by asking the 28-year-old to cast her mind back to where she was when GB won gold at the Rio Olympics.
Urroz was actually in Holland for the 2016 women’s final, on pre season with her former club Royal Antwerp. “I really remember that day and seeing the surprise on the Dutch faces watching on a big screen,” she recalls. “What the British girls did that day really inspired other athletes that you can really achieve important things even if you have a big opponent with a lot of quality and experience against you.”
The passion in her voice says it all. Just like GB against the Dutch, Chile will be underdogs against the Olympic champions, but Urroz admits that they can prove a match for Mark Hager’s side, even if the temperature and the crowd will be against them.
She says: “We know we’re not the favourites. It’s a big opponent and we have nothing to lose and we will give everything. Since we started our new era with a new coach in 2016 we wanted to do something different for our country.
“After we didn’t make the last World Cup everyone has been focused on Tokyo and this [play-offs] gives us the opportunity to feel like we are close to the Olympics. It’s just two games and anything can happen.”
After four seasons with Antwerp, the law graduate moved to Dutch side Oranje-Rood this year for a fresh challenge and she is the only player currently with a club outside of Chile.
“We have a really long country and it’s hard to connect, but it’s almost centralised in the capital so all the girls train and play there,” she says of her other team-mates.
Following the Pan Am Games, where Chile finished fourth, the squad flew to Belgium where Urroz met up two weeks ago for warm-up games against Canada before departing to the UK.
Although based in Europe for five years, Chilean sport runs through the Urroz family. Her grandfather played for Chile at the soccer World Cup in 1950, her aunt was one of the best Chilean tennis players playing at the Majors, while her brother is still one of the most important players in Chile’s rugby 7s squad.
Chile’s geography – over 2,650 miles long and just 150 miles at its widest point – and the imposing Andes mean that there is a sense of jealousy for Chileans. For Urroz, it only comes when talking sport.
“I admire the Argentinians, they are passionate about sports and all the little girls want to be a Leonas. And I really want to replicate that in our country and with the right results people can get more fanatic about our game.
“Chile is a place when you get older it’s about university and what you are going to study and not really about sports.”
A result at Lee Valley would surely put Las Diablas – The Devils – on the front pages and change the sport’s perception.
And Urroz and Co will make sure they are also heard when they match the Argentinian custom of walking into the venue with music blaring from a squad member’s speakers. “We do the same [as Argentina] but even better!” jokes Urroz. “We have a lot of rhythm and some with dancing moves and we aim to arrive to the field with a good vibe. That is something really special for our team.”
GB’s part in Chile growth
Hockey has been played in Chile since pre-colonial times. It was played by the Mapuche and is still played by the Indigenous population. It is called Palin or Chueca and has been a national sport since 2004. The British and German influence brought over hockey to Chile and arguably the most important clubs spawn from theses colonies in Santiago, at the Prince of Wales Country Club in La Reina and Club Manquehue in Vitacura.
The clubs have been playing and growing since the 1930s, as have the British Schools and competitions which have produced many of the players that presently represent Chile. There are records of The Hockey Club from the 1920s by Anibal Escobar and the formation of Prince of Wales Country Club in 1925 when the Prince visited Chile and agreed to allow his name to be used. Michael Gibney
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