The sudden weight loss and constant, severe fatigue finally had an explanation: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Germán Orozco, just 23 back then, did not immediately fear for his life. He was, instead, afraid of what he will do with his life if he survived. That was almost two decades ago, which may seem a long time now. But for Orozco, here as the coach Argentina, it was just the start of his biggest fight.
He survived the most critical battle of his life but there was collateral — the most devastating was when he was told he wouldn’t be able to have children. Orozco, a defender, overcame that pain and went on to represent Los Leones, the Argentine men’s hockey team, in two Olympics (Sydney and Athens) and two World Cups (2002 and 2006) while also leading the national team for three years.
So when he was asked to take charge of the Olympic champions earlier this year and rein in a dressing room that had seemingly gone out of control due to the clash of egos, the challenge seemed hardly intimidating. “The illness teaches you a lot… I lost fear of new challenges. It puts into perspective a lot of things,” Orozco, now 42, says.
The last four-year cycle has been a whirlwind for Argentina. They were the surprise podium finishers at the 2014 World Cup, where they won a bronze medal. That was followed up with an even more stunning result two years later – the Rio Olympics gold. Carlos Retegui, their dynamic coach, became a national hero while the players, who were forever under the shadow of the superstar footballers and women hockey players, shot to instant stardom.
The fame, however, did not last long. The wheels began to come off soon after the Olympics. In February, Retegui resigned as the national team coach citing a ‘lack of energy’. His decision was well-received and most players expressed solidarity.
Retegui, one of the most highly-respected coaches in the world, went on to join footballer Carlos Tevez at Boca Juniors to work privately with him.
Then, barely a month later, he reversed his decision. The Argentine hockey federation, who had said they will not re-hire Retegui, too made a u-turn and appointed him as coach till the World Cup.
That irked the team’s two senior-most players – Gonzalo Peillat and Agustin Mazzilli, who scored two goals each in Argentina’s 4-3 win over Spain in their World Cup opener on Thursday.
The duo ‘resigned’ from the team by posting an identically-worded letter on their social media accounts. “It was bullsh*t,” Peillat says. “Our federation keeps on changing coaches every three months. They aren’t capable to manage any issues and hence we have massive problems every year.”
Losing Peillat wasn’t an option for Argentina, who is indispensible to the team because of his immaculate drag-flicking abilities. Peillat was the top-scorer in the last World Cup and almost single-handedly guided Argentina to Olympic glory. His ‘retirement’ had a tinge of the Messi saga that had gripped Argentine football two years ago.
Embarrassed, the federation tried to coax him. But Peillat remained defiant. “We (him and Mazzilli) disagreed with the position he (Retegui) took (to come back). Two weeks ago, he had said he would resign as he did not have the energy any more. So how can you go back to the guy who (now) said, ‘I am ready to be the coach again’,” Peillat says.
As is the case often in these kinds of scenarios, the players’ voice was heard. Retegui was asked to leave and the federation turned to Orozco. But the damage this entire episode inflicted on the dressing room was deep.
“It was our hardest job (to pacify the players). We know this is a very good team… the individual skills are very good. They are all smart players on the pitch but they have some groupism so we tried to talk with them and come to an arrangement,” Orozco says. “We hope we have done that well. When I started, the team was in one mood (negative), now they are in a different mood (positive)… The difficult part of this was I am trying to take part in something that I didn’t create.”
Orozco sarcastically blames it on the Argentine culture – “we don’t want to be normal,” he says, referring also to the Superclasico fracas last weekend, which saw River Plate supporters attacking Boca Juniors’ players hours before the Copa Libertadores final. The Argentine team followed the developments in Buenos Aires closely. “We were up all night watching it on TV. They are tough fans who don’t care about the game sometimes,” Orozco says.
Hockey might not have such fanatics, but the expectations back home are high following the Olympic gold. Orozco has the unenviable task of extending Argentina’s dominance, and the World Cup will be his litmus test. He has survived one fight. Now he’s battle-ready for another.