Bhubaneswar: The heat was belting in Bhubaneswar. The temperature was close to 40 degree Celsius ahead Mexico's clash against Uzbekistan for the 7th-8th spot in the FIH World Series. The match began at 8.45 am and as it progressed, the temperature thrived at 40 and above, making it almost unbearable and unplayable for the lowest most ranked teams at the Kalinga Stadium.
There were hardly 20 spectators watching the match, the press box was almost empty and if given an option, probably both teams would've taken an off on Wednesday. It was the game that nobody wanted to watch, not many wanted to cover and players who would've preferred to play at some other time. But that was not an option. Both teams suffered defeats in all three of their respective Pool matches and players had to give their best in order to avoid the last place finish.
Like the heat, the game was extreme. Mexico took a 2-0 lead, then the Uzbeks equalised to make it 2-2. A penalty stroke in the 44th minute made 3-2 in the favour of Uzbekistan. Mexico equalised in the 54th minute in another penalty stroke and finally came the clinching goal in the last minute of the match with Mexico taking the game thanks to a penalty corner. 4-3 read the final scoreline. But maybe the scoreline didn't matter much. The match sapped every bit of energy from the players and they were probably happy that the torture is finally over.
"Oh man, this is serious. This is hell!" Maximiliano Mendez, the penalty corner specialist, and scorer of Mexico's first goal against Uzbekistan said after the match.
"There's no way to play in these conditions, man. It's so exhausting. I never played in these conditions. Never," Mendez, still catching his breath, said while gulping down a bottle of water.
After witnessing the severity of the conditions, the tournament organisers took a decision to extend break periods during the match. After the first quarter, the break time was increased from two minutes to four minutes. After the first-half, it was decided that the players will take a one-minute break after seven and a half minutes of play in each of the remaining two quarters. The break during the third and fourth quarter was again four minutes.
"In the first half, we played very well. But in the second-half, we lost a bit of concentration because of the tough conditions. The Uzbekistan team, they ran for everything. It looked like they didn't get tired at all. But finally, we got the result we wanted and we are happy for that," Pol Moreno, the head coach of Mexico, said.
It's true that the Uzbek players didn't stop running. Their energy levels were higher than their Mexico counterparts and that helped them in taking the lead in the match. But skill wise, the Mexicans were better. In a way, the heat during the latter period of the game neutralised the conditions, and Mexico were just able to hold on and converted their last penalty corner to take the game away and seal the seventh spot in the tournament.
Before coming to Bhubaneswar, the Mexican players trained at the Mexico City. The conditions in their home country were not that extreme and the team didn't really do any specific training to cope with the heat in Bhubaneswar, But Mendez spoke about taking back the valuable experience of facing the higher-ranked teams and playing in extreme heat.
"This is the next level of hockey. Here in these conditions, the big tournaments take place. It's a good experience, we have to learn to play in these conditions."
While Mexico trained in their home country, the Uzbekistan players had been training for the tournament in Pakistan, and also playing various local clubs and development teams in the country.
Learning from the best
Ahead of the FIH World Series, the target for Mexico was to play five matches in Bhubaneswar. They were hoping that they would qualify for next round, to play the crossover match. Things didn't go as per the plan for the team, but the coach is not too unhappy. He wanted the team to play against the higher-ranked teams and learn from them.
"The level in this tournament is high. It's always important and good for us to play these kinds of matches against good teams. We can learn from them," Moreno said after Mexico's last match against South Africa, which they lost 0-6.
The opportunity to play against the best doesn't come often for teams like Mexico. The playing experience does count for a lot as Mendez said the team usually watch good teams on screens to learn from them.
"There are five fields in the country so it's a little bit hard to play hockey. There are like just three tournaments at the higher level. We don't have a competitive league where we can play and develop.
"We watch best leagues. Watching the European matches. Watching the Hockey India League. We have to see these world-class leagues to learn from the best," Mendez said.
The Bhubaneswar heat might have taken all the energy, but players from Mexico and Uzbekistan are going home with experiences that will help them in the long term.