Hockey: Team GB men secure opening win in fractious match with Argentina

Great Britain 4 Argentina 1

It was the day when a few of the preconceptions about hockey were shed. Footballers miss World Cups because of broken metatarsals. The British women’s captain, preparing to leave hospital with a metal plate reinforcing her broken jaw, declares herself ready to play on.

There wasn’t much love lost or quarter given between the men’s team and their opposition. The Argentine player, Fernando Zylberberg, who appeared in a 90-second Government video, doing step-ups on a British war memorial in the Falkland Islands in readiness for London, has been left at home. But the image of Matt Daly sending Pedro Ibarra cascading through the air, with Ashley Jackson and Lucas Rey going nose to nose in their discussion of that incident at the end of the first half, captured the tone and temperature.

Asked by The Independent earlier tonight if Zylberberg’s video had provided an incentive, Lee said there were better motivating factors. “If they don’t play well I will rip their heads off,” he said. “I hope that was the bottom line for them.” There had been “some needle in the game,” admitted Lee’s captain, Barry Middleton. “It was two teams battling very hard for a win we’ve put two years of our life on hold to do this. The Argentinian guys are the same. We get upset together but now we sit here we are fine. Nobody stepped over the line. We kept it sporting and played within the rules of the game.”

The Argentinian press corps further probed this diplomatic line, pressing Lee on how much money had been put into British hockey. (Their own men get virtually nothing, as all the resource goes into the women, who are second ranked in the world. )“I know for a fact that most of our players worry about their mortgages and their careers because of certain sacrifices they’ve made to play full time,” Lee responded. “It’s in the millions of pounds but we are just in the pack in terms of funding.”

And behind all this, the narrative was Britain’s players calmly putting together a win which, in the final reckoning, they owed most to Middleton – the captain, foundation stone of Lee’s new attacking philosophy and one of the best players in the world game. It was Middleton who put the British ahead after 20 minutes, seizing on a loose ball after a penalty corner and driving it home from five yards. But it was his second half reverse stick shot from edge of the D which sealed the victory which was their minimum requirement.

The game provided a sense of what the gamble on a philosophy of attacking hockey has bought for Lee. This sport, minus offside and with rolling substitutions, is unsparingly fast in any case, the severe watering which the SmurfTurf watering receives before each game a necessary part of actually slowing down the ball’s movement to a manageable pace. The no-pass rule, which decrees that the ball does not need to be passed to an opponent after a free hit is awarded, also lends a furious flow.

Britain didn’t waste their time. They thought they were ahead in six minutes, when Nicholas Caitlin’s show from the left edge of the area rebounded to Matt Daly, who seemed to have scored until a video referral concluded that he had controlled with his foot. Glenn Kirkham’s shot was saved, Ben Hawes’ cross flew menacingly across the area, missing everyone, and Ashley Jackson – the cavalier of the side – sent wide a ball which was manoeuvred into his path.

Argentina capitulated to the British pace in a critical early second half period. Dan Fox burst through on the breakaway, exchanging passes with Jackson, to finish, Richard Smith’s fourth arrived from a penalty corner. Argentina got their consolation when a penalty corner of their own awarded after a video referral converted by Pedro Ibarra.

Middleton, more than most, knows the size of the challenge ahead, with Australia’s 7-0 hammering of South Africa earlier in the day confirming their status as the current colossus of the world game. “We can’t go into the tournament expecting to win but if we play really well we (ital)can(close)win, he says. This will do for starters.

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