The build-up to Tokyo 2020 continues with our latest Olympic Spotlight feature looks at the men’s and women’s teams of Spain, one of Europe’s most famous hockey playing nations.
There can be no doubt that under the guidance of head coach Adrian Lock, Spain women, the 1992 Olympic gold medallists, have undergone an impressive revival. The Englishman – a former Under-21 international – has been getting the best out of a talented group of players that reached the quarter-finals of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games before suffering defeat at the hands of eventual gold medal winners Great Britain. However, it was their performance at the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018 that really highlighted their progress, with the Red Sticks storming to the bronze medal by defeating Australia in the 3-4 place play-off, giving Spain their highest ever World Cup finish. The team secured their place at Tokyo 2020 through the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, defeating Korea 2-1 and 2-0 in Valencia.
Spain’s men have regularly produced sides that are capable of fighting for the biggest honours in the game, a fact proven by five silver medals at Olympic or World Cup level, not to mention two European championships and a Champions Trophy title. Head coach and former France international Frédéric Soyez – who will step away after Tokyo, being replaced by current Netherlands men’s head coach Max Caldas – has instilled a wonderful work ethic into his team without sacrificing any of the flair that has been the signature of so many Spanish sides in the past. Spain earned a berth at Tokyo with a hard-fought triumph over France in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, coming back from three goals down to draw 3-3 in the first match before edging a 3-2 victory in Match 2 in Valencia.
Ahead of their respective Olympic campaigns, we caught up with long-time Red Sticks stars Berta Bonastre and Marc Salles – two players who have been central figures in their squads for well over a decade – to see how things are shaping up for the Spanish teams. The interview was recorded prior to the recently concluded European Championships.
Berta Bonastre and Marc Salles, thank you so much for talking to us! The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is getting close. Berta, despite the delay and all of the challenges surrounding the covid situation, are you looking forward to Tokyo?
Berta Bonastre: “Yes, for sure. Especially because it is one year later. One year is a lot of time to wait for something like this. When you live something, you have to live it at 100 percent. When I was in Rio I didn’t expect that covid was coming, and that the next time I was at an Olympics I would have to wait [an extra year due to the delay]. So yes, I’m so excited for this to come.”
And you, Marc – how are men’s Red Sticks feeling about the chance to compete in Tokyo?
Marc Salles: “I think for everyone it was a big break. I remember during the first quarantine, of 15 days, we didn’t know that the Olympics would be [postponed]. We were doing gym at home and using Zoom with all the team [in order] to prepare. We were thinking that we would spend 15 days at home and then play the Olympic Games. When they decided to postpone it for one year, then everything changed. We started a new organisation of the team. We were thinking ‘we have one year more, so what can we do better and what can we improve’. It was a very good thing for us at the end.”
You’ve both been fortunate enough to play for Spain in Olympic competition. Starting with you, Marc, what does it mean to you, to represent your country at an Olympic Games?
Marc Salles: “For us, we are very proud because there are many people who play hockey here in Spain. It is only 16 players who go there, and [at the time the interview was conducted] we are not going yet. We have to train; we still have 26 players. So, for us, it is very important to do it again, to go to another Olympic Games. We are very proud and very happy.”
Same question to you Berta. It is fulfilling a childhood dream, right?
Berta Bonastre: “Yes, for sure. I think the big part of the team, it is a nice group that have been working for a long time together. Not only the 16 players who will go there, but the big group of girls who are training for that. I think when you are playing at the Olympics, you think not only about the 16 that are there, but also the girls who couldn’t make it. I think if the team gets better, it is because of everyone that was in the team in all of the moments of the year. You are fighting for something as a big group, not just the 16 players who are there. It is like a big dream for the team.”
It was a while back now but securing qualification for Tokyo was obviously a crucially important step. For you Berta, it was against Korea in the 2019 FIH Olympic Qualifiers in Valencia. What did it mean to you to secure that ticket to Japan?
Berta Bonastre: “It was amazing because we had been preparing for it for a long time. We had a big preparation for around a month and a half before, and we felt we were like a family. When we played the games, I felt that the whole team was so concentrated, focussed on what we had to do. We knew exactly what we had to do, and I felt we were quite confident. I think all of the team grew together. Our coach wanted everyone to be there, so even those who were not playing. I think that made us stronger. It was so fast – the two games went so quickly. But I think we were so confident and had studied every detail both on and off the field. I have quite a good memory of that.”
And Marc, for the men it was also the Olympic Qualifier in Valencia, a dramatic encounter against neighbours France. That must have been very special.
Marc Salles: “For us it was a little bit what like Berta said. It went very fast, the two games. We prepared to be the best we could be, but France played really good and maybe we didn’t expect that. We didn’t play our best hockey, maybe because of the pressure or maybe due to the atmosphere there. It was all about preparing to win and qualify, but we still had to play two important games. I think we were 3-0 down in the first match, so it was very tough for us because we had to recover and start again. I remember that moment as a very difficult moment, as all of the qualifying competitions for the Olympic Games are. I remember in 2015, in Argentina, we played Korea and had a shoot-out to go to the Olympic Games. It is always difficult to qualify. You have extra pressure. When you go to the Olympic Games, you want to win medals and be there. However, for me, preparing and playing in these qualifying games is the most important thing because it is where you have to win, no matter what. The best thing about that weekend was to qualify, not the hockey. That is what I remember, and I feel very happy about that.”
In Tokyo, the focus will be all about getting out of those tough looking pools and into the quarter-finals. Marc, you guys face reigning Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, India, New Zealand and Japan in Pool A. Your first match is against Argentina, on 24th July. What are your thoughts about that match, and the pool in general.
Marc Salles: “For Argentina, we always say, maybe because of the Latin or the language, that we play a little bit the same. We both put our passion on the game and are both very skilful. It is always difficult to predict what is going to happen. It is always a close game. I remember at the Rio Olympic Games they beat us in the quarter-finals with a penalty stroke three minutes before the finish of the game. It is a tough game and will be very close. Regarding the pool, it’s very different. You have Argentina, but also Australia and New Zealand, who play a little bit [in] the same [way], hockey that is very physical. They go for it all game; they don’t have any down time. With Japan, we don’t know a lot about them. We know that they won the Asian Games a few years ago, so they are going to be very good. Also playing at home, where it is going to be 40 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It is going to be very tough for all of the teams. We know India. It is always difficult to play them as they are skilful, fast and unpredictable. We have a very open pool, and I am looking forward to playing in it.”
And Berta, the women’s Red Sticks are in Pool B alongside Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan. There are no easy matches at the Olympic Games.
Berta Bonastre: “That is what I wanted to say! In the Olympics, every game is a challenge and I think all the teams play differently, in a competition like that. As a team, what we expect is to play game by game, not thinking about the final objective. Every game is a war. You have to analyse and study every team, because each team is there [at the Olympics] because they are strong, intelligent and technical. We have played test matches against some of the teams in the pool. We went to Australia and played five games, while China came here to Spain. We also had several games against New Zealand and also Argentina, where we played five or seven games. I think we know each other quite well, which makes it more difficult, knowing every detail, every press, every kind of attack, and every player. You know them very well. I think it will be quite a different situation because of Covid, so every team will have changed. We will see, but I think we are quite excited about that challenge, to have the possibility to be there and we will fight until the end.”
Finally, you have both represented Spain with such distinction over a long period of time, having achieved so much. What is the plan after Tokyo for you both? Or are you not thinking that far ahead? We’ll start with you, Berta.
Berta Bonastre: “That is a big question! I don’t know. I feel I have been with the national team for a long time, as I started quite young. It takes a lot of effort to be there, to take care of your body, to be at 100 percent. It is quite a big effort. On the other hand, you have big emotions and experiences that you don’t have with a normal life. So, I think my objective is to go to the Olympics and then I would like to continue until the World Cup (in 2022), but you never know. You have to feel that your mind and your body are ready to follow. I don’t want to think about it; we will see.”
And you, Marc?
Marc Salles: “I feel a little bit the same as Berta. Give everything to the Olympics, be the best prepared that I can, mind, body, technical and tactical. Then, after a big vacation after the Olympics – it has been a long, long year – I am going to play another year with [club team] Atlétic Terrassa, that is for sure. We’ll see what is going to happen. I’m not even thinking about the World Cup in two years, you know? I am thinking about what will happen in September, and then we will see.”
The hockey competitions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will take place from Saturday 24 July to Friday 6 August 2021. Both the men’s and women’s competitions feature 12 teams, split into two pools of six ahead of quarter-finals, semi-finals and medal matches. For more information about the hockey competitions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, visit https://tokyo2020.org/en/sports/hockey/.