by Stephen Findlater
For Spain, this year’s men’s EuroHockey Nations Championships represents a chance to get back to the top-table of hockey in the continent after almost a decade of frustration on this stage. Indeed, it was 2007 when the two-time champions last landed a medal in Europe – a silver in Manchester – while 2009 was the last time they advanced from the group stages, the last time the tournament was played in the Wagener Stadium. There are still a couple of links to that golden era, one which saw Spain win silver at the 2008 Olympic Games with Sergi Enrique still bossing the defensive line with goalkeeper Quico Cortes barking the orders from between the posts.
Indeed, Cortes was one of the crucial figures for the Spanish in Johannesburg last month, keeping out nine penalty corners in their quarter-final 2-1 win over Ireland to secure their place at the 2018 World Cup, a performance that went a long way to him landing the goalkeeper of the tournament. That duo have close to 500 caps between them but, otherwise, the red sticks are a side looking to overhaul their panel with the likes of Marc Calzada, Marc Bolto, Ignasi Torras, Marc Perrellon, Marc Serahima, Marc Gracia-Chicote and Enrique Gonzalez the new breed making their push for European places this summer.
Marc Salles, 30, will be playing in his fourth European championships since scoring a crucial goal in 2011 in Monchengladbach against France, a goal the ultimately retained their place in the top tier.
And he is enjoying the fresh-faced panel that he is now one of the major leaders with. “We had a great experience in South Africa,” the former Oranje-Zwart midfielder said. “Our main goal was to get the ticket for the World Cup and try to qualify for the World League final. We did both, so we are very happy and excited to be contesting these big tournaments. After World Cups and Olympic games, there are always big changes. It’s the time to bring in new talents who will be the key players in the next few years. Of course I miss my older teammates [like Roc Oliva and David Alegre] after many years playing and traveling together but the squad is full of energy and the new teammates have created a very good environment.”
In addition to qualifying for the World League Final, Spain also got an extra boost this summer when they were added to the Hockey Pro League, the new FIH initiative that begins in 2019. They had initially been left out only to get a late call to replace India who decided to withdraw from the line-up, something Salles says will keep the world number nine side in touch with the top countries.
“Playing more games against the best is the way to get closer to them. It’s difficult to become better just training on your own. For this reason, we have received the news of our inclusion with great enthusiasm. Moreover, 2019 is very important to be in the best shape to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
Spain round out their Euro preparations with a special celebration tournament in Salles’ hometown of Terrassa, a city which lays claim to being the “most Olympic city in the world”. That claim is based on the huge amount of hockey Olympians that have been developed in the hills above Barcelona by the Atlètic Terrassa, Club Egara and CD Terrassa clubs, several of whom were in Rio last October. Terrassa hosts a top quality four nations tournament with Spain taking on England, the Netherlands and Germany in a 25-year commemoration of the 1992 Olympic Games with the Municipal Olympic Stadium – recently renamed the Stadium Martí Colomer – hosting once again.
Following that tournament, Spain will name their final squad but a couple of changes are already confirmed with Miki Delas – their captain in Johannesburg – stepping out while Bloemendaal-bound Xavi Lleonart coming in after a lengthy time out with a shoulder injury. “Xavi has been very important in the past for us and he will be even more so in the future,” Salles adds. “He is fast and able to produce great skills at the same speed which makes really difficult to stop. In addition, he is one of the best defenders for a striker so we know he will be a key player in this European Cup.”
And Salles knows that they will need to have Lleonart firing in a tough group featuring Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium. “We know to win these games you need to play at your best in the defense and maximise the chances that you get. We played against Austria at the Hamburg Masters. They are great defenders with the two top players in [Benjamin] Stanzl and [Michael] Korper. Although we beat them, we will need to give our best version to do it again.”
Tickets are still available. The openingweekend and the finals of the Rabo EuroHockey Championships will be played in front of a packed stadium: all weekend days are already sold out.