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From obscurity to overnight fame, Argentina’s Olympic hockey tale

PTI | Bhubaneswar |

Cutting through barriers and years of neglect in a country that is obsessed with football and its global icons, the Argentine men’s hockey team is finally coming out of the shadows and charting its own path.

While the likes of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona are household names, ‘Los Leones’, as the Argentina men’s hockey team is called, lived in relative obscurity till a bronze medal at the 2014 Word Cup opened the doors for more success.

Until the breakthrough in the Netherlands, the men’s hockey team was living not only under the shadow of soccer, rugby and basketball, but was also weighed down by the achievements of its more famous women counterparts.

Hockey in the South American nation, till then, was mainly liked to ‘Las Leonas’, the women’s hockey team.

Featuring the great Luciana Aymar, the Argentine women have won medals at the last four Olympics, won two World Cups and seven Champions Trophy titles, all coming in a century that is not even two decades old.

And then, out of nowhere, the men’s team won the gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, its best-ever international result, and it made them overnight stars back home.

“The Olympic gold was important for the survival of men’s hockey in Argentina. It was a historic moment for us. We know how important it was for us,” said Gonzalo Peillat, who was the top-scorer in Rio with 10 goals.

“After the Olympics mentality (of Argentines back home) has changed a little bit. Hockey has slowly started to become bigger and bigger. Earlier the women’s team was only famous but now a days the support is equal for us. Every television channels in Argentina are now following us.”

Soccer is a culture in Argentina and football players are worshipped as Gods. Expectedly, the infrastructure and popularity of hockey is not upto the mark, forcing the likes of Peillat to ply their trade in the European leagues of Netherlands and Germany.

“Argentines are crazy about soccer. Competition in hockey is not good and that’s why more than half of our team players have moved to Europe,” said Peillat.

Senior player Lucas Villa summed up men’s hockey’s plight in Argentina before their Rio success.

“Men’s hockey was not so popular in Argentina till we won the gold. We were bullied whenever we used to go for training. People used to inquire what was there in our hockey kit. They used to ask us whether we were carrying guns,” Villa said.

“But now the scenario has changed. People back home have started to recognise us.”

Argentina men’s hockey team is currently the world No. 1 side, while the women are placed third in the standings.