Ignacio Contardo is unemployed after quitting his bank job in 2022. The brothers Fernando and Felipe Renz work as an account manager at one of Chile’s biggest beverage companies and a fruit retailing company respectively. Axel Troncoso works as a software engineer at Synopsys Chile. Nils Strabucchi studies agriculture at a university in Santiago.

You can see them all together in the Chile men’s hockey national team that is currently in India for the country’s debut at FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup. What brings them together is their love for hockey which has seen them travel 17,000 kms across 12 time zones to represent Chile.

“The World Cup is important because every match is a final for us. We have small goals. Score a goal in the World Cup, then take some points and why not win some matches,” Chile head coach Jorge Dabanch had told Scroll.in during a pre tournament interaction.

On Saturday, Dabanch’s men achieved one of those targets when Ignacio Contardo scored his country’s first-ever men’s World Cup goal in a 3-1 loss to New Zealand.

Hockey is not the biggest sport in Chile. That honour belongs to football while one could say athletics, rugby and volleyball jostle for second place in the South American country. With limited government support, hockey in the country has been slowly growing over the past few years.

A year after the women’s team created history by playing their first-ever World Cup in Spain and Netherlands, the men’s team are hoping that their debut will help hockey grow in Chile.

“I think I have noticed a lot more people are interested in hockey since we qualified for the World Cup,” midfielder Axel Troncoso told this publication. “You see that in sponsors and even friends who become interested when they see Chile is reaching a higher level. It might have a small impact now but we have come to keep this position and qualify for World Cups repeatedly in the future, that would have a significant impact later.”

Chile secured a first ever FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup qualification with a second-place finish at the 2022 Pan American Cup on home soil in Santiago. Photo and caption via FIH Media guide

Hockey in Chile

“In Chile, hockey is an elite sport,” Antonia Iracoqui, Strabucchi’s partner and a hockey player herself, said while watching the team take on New Zealand at the Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela. Iracoqui is among eight Chileans, all family members of the players, who have made the 22-hour journey from Chile to India.

For Strabbuchi, Iracoqui and most of the Chilean players, their introduction to hockey happened in the English-medium schools they attended. The sport is also popular among girls with boys, like Strabbuchi, preferring to play football. The 24-year-old even tried to get into a local football club but was turned away which led him to take up hockey in school.

“There are several clubs and the community of hockey players is very nice to be in and the players tend to stick around,” Troncoso said. “Little by little it is building up. For now, or for the last year, it had been a very closed community. It wasn’t closed for any reason but it just naturally occurred that way. Now the hockey federation is doing a good job in breaking down those barriers and opening the limits and bringing it to schools and popularise it.”

The country’s proximity to heavyweights Argentina has also helped give Chilean players exposure to playing good hockey. It is also where Dabanch honed his coaching skills for 20 years before he went to Europe to coach clubs in the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.

Coaches and players from both countries regularly travel across the border to not only help develop each others’ games, but also to ensure they can play at a high level in a hockey-starved continent.

“Argentina is very close to our country and we have a lot of travel and play with them,” Dabanch said. “Not just the national team of Chile but also the U-21 team. They have a very good level and that is very good for Chile because we are in South America. We are very far away from other countries who play at Argentina’s level. We play a lot with Argentina because that is the only way we can improve.”

In 2021, the Indian women’s junior team toured Chile and played two matches with their junior team and four with the senior team. The women’s team, the Las Diablas, created history when they made their debut at the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup in Spain-Netherlands in 2022 even beating 2018 runners-up Ireland and finishing above South Korea, South Africa and Canada.

Future of Hockey

Dabanch hopes that the experience of playing in the World Cup will help his side reach the final of the men’s hockey event when Chile hosts the 2023 Pan American Games in October. In order to expand the reach of the sport in the country, the authorities opened the first public hockey field in the country which, Dabanch hopes, “will open the possibility for people to play hockey.”

Though the Chilean government has helped the hockey programme by providing the teams with physiotherapists and doctors as part of the Olympic programme, none of the Chilean players are centrally contracted. Many of them hold well-paying jobs in Chile which fuels their passion for the sport.

“They are lucky that they have a good life in general. All these players were born in a family where, I wouldn’t say they are rich, but families which have good lives. So they don’t have a problem investing time in hockey and to be a part of this process for 10 years or 12 years. After that, they can work to live,” Dabanch said.

“It will be good if they have some help from the government and have the possibility to get some money for things. The government does give some money to the players but they don’t spend that on themselves. They put it in a community fund and with that money we send some players to play in other countries. Or we’ll use that to buy protective equipment for the goalkeepers,” he added.

Their financial status has also helped many of the Chilean players to pursue short-term spells in European leagues. Defender Vicente Goni has had spells in Spain while goalkeeper Adrian Henriquez and the Renz brothers have played in Holland. Felipe currently works in the Netherlands and plays for a local club in Rotterdam.

Playing in Europe on a regular basis is the aim of most of the Chilean players. However, the logistics of travel as well as ensuring they can balance their work and hockey commitments makes planning tricky.

Their passion, in the end, is summed up by what Chile’s first men’s World Cup goalscorer, Contardo said: “I was working in a bank in Chile. We qualified for the World Cup. I said ‘Ok bye-bye job’ and I went to Europe to play and prepare for this World Cup.”