Four years ago, trailing 2-3 against England in the dying moments of the Hockey World Cup quarterfinals in Bhubaneswar, Gonzalo Peillat took a desperate shot from near the halfway line. The thunderbolt from the drag flick specialist took a deflection, and only a desperate outstretched foot by the English ‘keeper prevented a hat-trick for Peillat and kept the then Olympic champion from forcing a shootout. The final whistle blew just as the ball bobbled to safety.
Peillat wouldn’t know it then, but that long-range strike would be his final play with Argentina. Following a bitter team dispute a few weeks later, Peillat, who had scored 176 goals in 153 internationals, would be out of the Argentina team. The top goalscorer at the 2016 Olympics was one of the lynchpins of Argentina’s historic triumph at the Rio Games and is among the greatest ever to don the blue and white jersey. But he would be out of international hockey for the next three years. Peillat wasn’t the only member of that Olympic gold-winning squad whose international career for Argentina ended following the 2018 Hockey World Cup. Striker Joaquin Menini too played the last of his 110 internationals for Argentina against England in Bhubaneswar. Menini, too, spent three years away from international hockey.
Now, four years later, both Peillat and Menini are back in Odisha, where they will be competing at the 2023 World Cup. They won’t be in Argentina colors. Peillat is now competing for Germany, while Menini is part of the Spanish squad. It’s rare for international hockey players to switch nationalities and Peillat and Menini are the first Olympic champions to do so.
Both made their international debuts for their new sides last year. Both missed out on potentially three most productive years of their sporting careers — Peillat was 26, and Menini just a year older at the last World Cup.
READ | Hockey World Cup: Spain and Wales, group-stage opponents of India arrive in Odisha
Peillat has no regrets about what happened. “My career as an Argentina hockey player is finished. I did everything for them, and they did not appreciate it. Before I left the team, I conveyed my thoughts, and the association and players agreed. But at that time, no one did anything to change,” he tells Sportstar.
Peillat’s and Menini’s exile from the team has its roots in a conflict between a group of players led by Peillat and then captain Augustin Mazzilli and the team coach German Orozco. Mistrust had been brewing between players and administration since early 2018 when Carlos Retegui, the coach of the Olympic winning team, quit, rejoined and then left again.
The grumblings wouldn’t end there, with Peillat complaining publicly about the state of Argentine hockey during the 2018 World Cup. Matters boiled over after the loss to England. Menini, seen as someone close to Peillat, was unceremoniously dropped from the team soon after. Peillat quit a few weeks later amid rumours of favouritism in team selection.
“The players wanted to stay (in the team) because it is like a job in Argentina, and I never could take it as a job. I did it because I enjoyed it and it was my passion. I will never stay in a place where people would try to be part of something at any cost. People need to deserve to be there and be the best. You cannot play in the national team because you are the friend of the coach or a group of players. In the national team, you must always play the best ones,” says Peillat.
The break in their international hockey journey was abrupt. “It was unexpected. But I had faith in my abilities as a player. And I also had the support of my parents and my girlfriend (2012 Olympic women’s hockey silver medallist Florencia Habif). International players have to be mentally strong to deal with sudden challenges,” Peillat says.
READ | First goal is to reach semis, but ultimate one is to win hockey World Cup, says Germany coach
Menini chooses to see the positives. “Honestly, after all that happened, I was okay with the thought that my international career was over. I had played eight years of international hockey at that point. I had never had a chance to study or take a holiday. Maybe it was a good time to take a rest. I got a chance to take another seat and watch hockey from outside. I got a chance to focus on things that matter. I always wanted to complete my studies, so I did a Masters in sports management. I had always wanted to travel, and at the beginning of the (Covid-19) pandemic, I travelled a few times,” he says.
It was the same for Peillat. “I enjoyed my time outside international hockey. It helped me appreciate what I had done with my hockey career. I also enjoyed my time doing other things that I could not do for nine years. I travelled a lot with my girlfriend and spent time with my family. More than hockey, I played golf with my father and friends. I played hockey in different Leagues around the World. I missed the Hockey India League, but it would have been great to play there again,” he says.
Peillat and Menini’s careers continued with club hockey in Europe – Menini had been playing for Dutch side Den Bosch since 2017, while Peillat had been a part of Mannheimer HC, which played in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Their choice of clubs would become crucial to their eventual return to international hockey. “I came to Germany in 2016,” says Peillat of his decision to join the German team. A friend of mine playing in Mannheim introduced me to the coach, Michael McCann, and I’ve been playing here ever since. My idea was to play in a professional hockey club where my girlfriend could also play. It was the first thing I told the club,” he says.
While the two admit they enjoyed playing club hockey, the drive to return to the international level remained and they discovered it. According to Menini, the disappointment of missing out on the Tokyo Olympics motivated him to pursue his comeback seriously.
“I knew my career with Argentina was over because I’d never even gotten a call from them after I was dropped. But I remember watching hockey at the Tokyo Olympics, and I was a little wistful about the time I was at the Olympics myself. Luckily, at that time, I got a call from Max Caldas. He called me at the right time because, after the Olympics, I had extra motivation to get back to international hockey,” he says.
READ |FIH World Cup, Group A: Australia, Argentina the heavyweights
Caldas, a former Argentine international, had been Menini’s coach at Den Bosch. He had also had stints with the Dutch men’s and Olympic gold medal-winning women’s hockey teams before taking over as the coach of the Spanish men’s team in 2021. “Max asked me if I was still interested in playing international hockey and if I had a Spanish passport,” Menini recalls.
Menini says the Argentina management called him up once they realised Spain had approached him. But he had made up his mind by then. “I was clear that it was over. I spoke to the current coach, Mariano Ronconi, and told him I wasn’t leaving just because Spain called me but because I never got an explanation why things happened the way they did. How could I be certain the same things wouldn’t happen again?”
The move was a no-brainer for Menini. His grandparents are from Spain. He had a Spanish passport since he was 12 and spoke the language fluently. Within a few months, he was part of the team.
It took longer for Peillat, who had to apply for a German passport. “I’d been playing with Mannheim since 2018, so I thought I might as well get a passport if I wanted to play for them,” says Peillat, who eventually got his passport in March last year.
Both had left the Argentina side around the same time, and Menini says they discussed their new potential career move too. “Gonzalo Peillat and I are still friends. We spoke about it, discussed, and had the same opinion. We didn’t have to advise each other. We have the same values and opinions about what we did. That was more about just talking and sharing what our next step was going to be,” says Menini.
Peillat’s availability was a major scoop for the German team. Germany’s hockey sports director Christoph Menke-Salz felt Peillat presented “an interesting option”.
For both, the move to a new team has involved a bit of a cultural shift. “Argentina has a big Spanish background in food and music, so there are a lot of similarities, but in some things, it is different. The way of playing in Argentina and Spain is one. Spanish hockey is about trying to keep long possession of the ball. It’s more of a passing game. Argentina is more direct attacking,” says Menini. The fact that the Spanish team was looking to sign him was also ironic. “It’s funny because now Argentina is seen as the bigger team (Argentina is currently seventh in the FIH world rankings, one place above Spain), but when I was growing up, it was different. Argentina had a very strong women’s team, but Spain men’s team was really good. They had won silver in the 2008 Olympics, bronze in the 2006 World Cup and silver at the 2010 Champions Trophy. As a young boy, that was a team I would look up to,” he says.
For Peillat, the cultural differences weren’t just in playing tactics. “It is different to the way things are in Argentina. It’s nice to have a bit of both. In Argentina, everything is passionate. Everything is spontaneous; we just let it flow. In Germany, it is really difficult to be spontaneous, they like to plan everything with time, but they are more meticulous. They do a lot of things in small groups,” he says.
ALSO READ - Belgium coach Heuvel: We are here to defend our World Cup title
And while Menini benefited from being part of a culture that speaks the same language as he did as a child, Peillat had to learn a new tongue. “I had to learn German if I wanted to communicate with all my teammates. There wasn’t any other option,” he says. He isn’t complaining though. “I am privileged to know both cultures, and I always try to combine the two to find a perfect balance.”
As their performance for their new national squads suggests, both players have managed to find that balance. Peillat was included as a player in the national team the same month he got his passport and has already scored six times in 12 games for Germany. Menini hasn’t done too badly either – he has won 28 caps and scored thrice in the Pro League.
Both also admit feeling a touch of nerves ahead of their comeback. “After three years away from international hockey, I was a little nervous about whether I was still at the same level. But I was able to adjust well, and my teammates were supportive,” says Peillat.
Then there was their match with Argentina which had a sharper edge than other encounters. “I was overthinking how it was going to be because I didn’t leave on the best terms. But I played pretty well, and things were normal. It was better than I expected,” admits Menini, who scored a goal in the match against Argentina in the Pro League
It was the same for Peillat, who scored three times in two Pro League matches against his former side. “I don’t think too much about it. I now play for Germany and want to win against other nations. What happened is in the past. I live in the present and enjoy every moment of my new chapter,” he says.
While the two now look to do their best against their former national team, there’s one Argentina outfit that neither will root against – the football team. “I will play for the German hockey team, but don’t ask me to cheer for the football team if Argentina is playing against them. In football I support Argentina. I’m a huge (Lionel) Messi fan. I’m really happy that they became World Cup champions in Qatar,” he says. Both players are relieved they didn’t have to divide their loyalties with both their adopted nations losing before an Argentina encounter. “I was a little divided because I was cheering for both Spain and Argentina, but in the end, I am happy Argentina won the title,” says Menini.
Making new memories
The football World Cup is over, and both players are focused on what is expected of them in Odisha. At 31, Menini is the oldest member of the Spanish team. “As an experienced guy, my role is more to be one of the leaders of the group and help the rest of the guys to perform to the best of their ability and learn from being around me. That’s my role. Our players are talented, but my job is to bring that experience,” says Menini.
Peillat, one of five players over 30 in the German team, has a similar task. “I try to bring calm to the team and my thoughts as a senior member. Normally, younger teams are emotional, and they complain a lot. Here is when I push players to keep calm and keep going,” he says.
There are personal goals as well. Having reached the final of the 2014 World Cup with Argentina, Peillat is hoping to go all the way this time. “I would love to be the German World Champion in the 2023 World Cup. It is a special tournament, and as a hockey player, after the Olympics, this is the most important tournament,” he says.
There are also dreams beyond the tournament. For all their experience and success with Argentina, Peillat and Menini are essentially starting from scratch with a new group. Their Olympic gold medal is a career highlight, but newer goals beckon. “The Olympic gold medal was the biggest achievement of our lives. My jersey and medal are still at my home in Argentina. But it’s time for us to start making new memories,” says Menini.
Latest on Sportstar
- Jabeur overcomes slow start to reach French Open fourth round
- Cerundolo downs Fritz to reach second week of slam for first time
- Nuggets coach says ‘We haven’t done a damn thing’ in NBA Finals
- Haddad Maia becomes first Brazilian woman to reach French Open last 16 in 44 years
- Fan arrested for ‘97’ slogan on shirt