As the chilly air begins to set in at the Birsa Munda Stadium, the Argentinian contingent makes its way onto the turf. The players walk out for the warm-ups with some sunny music playing on one of the speakers they brought with them.
The warm-up routines appear to be in sync with the tunes, while Federico Monja is gracefully dribbling a ball with his stick.
“It’s Cumbia music,” says Mariano Ronconi, the Argentine head coach. He opens Spotify on this correspondent’s phone and types in the keyword and plays the song Cumbia Sobre el Mar by Los Polmeras.
“They are the best! Listen to it,” an excited Ranconi adds before breaking into a little merengue dance.
Matias Vila, the assistant coach and a three-time Olympian with Los Leones, describes it as a happy song. “It’s South American music. It’s played in stadiums. It’s sung by hooligans but by changing the lyrics,” he chuckles.
The Argentina team is in high spirits. It started the World Cup in Bhubaneswar with a tough 1-0 win over lowly South Africa but put the rest of the competition on notice with a 3-3 draw against the tournament favourite Australia. Ronconi’s side is second in pool A and faces France in the final match.
“We are confident that Argentina can play Australia, Belgium or Holland and have great matches against them with a good mentality and strategy. We can play with a good plan, stick to it and win from anywhere. That’s the way I coach the team and that’s how the players step out onto the field, believing that we can beat Australia,” says the former goalkeeper-turned-coach.
After Argentina’s Olympic gold in Rio, the team hasn’t had the smoothest of rides. Two of its star players Gonzalo Peillat and Joaquin Menini quit the national team after disputes with the then-coach German Orozco, who was later dismissed by the federation. Ronconi, who was an assistant to Orozco’s predecessor Carlos Retegui, was suddenly tasked with leading the team at the Tokyo Olympics. The team finished seventh in its gold medal defence.
“After Tokyo, the name of the head coach disappear [from the Argentina team], but I remained as the coach of the team. I then built things up, and started work as the coach with my new staff,” says Ronconi, after his elevation to head coach on November 21.
Having to overcome loss is something Ronconi has previously endured in his life. His five-year-old daughter passed away 11 years ago.
“It was a very big loss,” says Ronconi, who remembers ‘his angel’ every year on his Instagram page.
“It was hard to pass but nowadays we believe that with death a new start begins and assume that it is in the past. I post every year and remember her, assuming that my daughter is good. It is what it is.”
When he was appointed in a full-time role, Ronconi brought in Vila, who he also had previously worked with Retegui, to join the ranks and set about hitting the refresh button on the team.
“The main change was a generational change. After Tokyo, many big players quit and I have the advantage of knowing the young players by taking them to two U-21 World Cups. The change I implemented was to refresh the team and allow the new generation to start,” he says.
Since his appointment, the team has won the Pan American Cup and a gold medal at the South American Games.
For the World Cup, Ronconi has selected nine players – Thomas Habif, Santiago Tarazona, Martin Ferreiro, Agustin Bugallo, Emiliano Bosso, Nicolas Keenan, Tomas Domene, Agustin Machelett and Maico Casella – from the 2016 squad he coached and Bautista Capurro and Facundo Zarate from the 2021 World Cup-winning squad in the 20-man touring party.
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Only less than a month ago, the Albicleste gave the nation of over four million a memorable end to 2022 by winning the World Cup. What will a hockey World Cup win mean for the country?
“No, no, no…,” immediately comes the response. “Different things, different games, different ranking, all different. We are hoping that we can also win the World Cup, but football is a whole different world.”
Ranked seventh in the world and only a bronze medal finish (2014) in 13 World Cups, Ronconi’s aim is to transform Los Leones into a consistent outfit.
“The plan is to keep Argentina among the 4, 5, 6 top teams in every tournament,” according to him. “If we have a great tournament we can be on the podium or even become champion.”