Away from hockey, Messi and Ashes on players' minds

England and Australia players in action during the two teams' 2-2 draw in the pool stages. STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

England meet Argentina in the quarterfinals of hockey's World League Final in Bhubaneswar on Thursday but there's been more than hockey to keep the players occupied. There's football, of course, which is a more famous rivalry for these teams, and there's cricket too, with England's players following the Ashes.

Ask Argentina's striker Agustin Mazzilli about his fondness for football, and his eyes light up. "Football in Argentina is like cricket here. You want to play football, and everyone knows how to play football," he says. "I played all sports -- rugby, football and hockey and at the end I decided I would want to stick to just hockey."

Mazzilli, who says he got his nickname of pajaro (bird in Spanish) while still in his teens and before entering hockey full-time, has a defined order of teams and leagues that he follows. "Barcelona, because [Lionel] Messi is there. I like Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United too. I always catch up with La Liga, Premier League and the Argentinean league as well, over weekends," he says, agreeing that Argentina have got a tough draw for the World Cup in Russia next year, but one he is happy with since they have "the best player in the world" with them.

"Every warmup, we play a little game with a football in a circle, just for fun, but also to start moving our feet and everything. I play striker," says Mazzilli, before spilling the beans on his teammates. "The good players are [strikers] Lucas Vila, Maico Casella, and Gonzalo [defender Gonzalo Peillat]...Gonzalo is pretty bad."

His England counterpart Sam Ward, meanwhile, has been keeping himself busy with watching The Ashes on television in Bhubaneswar to "chill out" -- his team has played out a high-tempo 2-2 draw against the Australians in the pool stages in Bhubaneswar -- though Wednesday morning must have been a chastening experience.

"An Ashes clash is an Ashes clash for us. When we play Australians, we really come out fighting and we're really buzzed for a clash like that," he says. "I am a keen cricketer myself and my favourite cricketer was Charles Dagnall, who played for Leicestershire and now comes on Test Match Special commentary. Top bloke." Ward has been known for some innovative celebrations, and against India, he followed both his goals by holding his hands across each other after raising his arms, but insists there was no specific intention behind the gesture. "We just like practising lots of things in our room, and there's not a lot of hidden meaning behind it. We just like each other's company and we like trying different things," says Ward.

Mazzilli insists that Argentina's lack of form in Bhubaneswar -- beaten 3-2 by Belgium in a rematch of the Olympic final, and rounding off their pool games by letting slip a 1-0 lead to lose to ninth-ranked Spain -- is not a source of concern for a team rebuilding since 2016. Only half the squad at the World League Final are survivors of the Rio final, where Mazzilli scored the final goal in the closing seconds of the 4-2 win over Belgium, a memory that makes him laugh when reminded it puts him at par with Messi on Olympic gold medals.

"We have nine new players from the Olympics, so we have to build up from that every time. Also the way the tournament is, everyone is playing quarterfinals, and it doesn't matter which position you finish. You just have to win that (quarter-final) game, and after that the tournament starts," he says.