Hockey, youth system, sacrifice: The story of Belgium's remarkable rise

"We said before the Olympic Games, we have one mission. We wanted to make Belgium dream and smile again after a difficult year. We did it! One team, one mind, one country," says Tokyo 2020 gold medallist and Belgium goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch.

Belgium Hockey

The Belgium hockey players celebrate their Olympics gold medal triumph in the city centre of Brussels.   -  Special Arrangement

Belgium travelled to Tokyo Olympics as one of the favourites to win the men's hockey tournament – that's saying something for a side that was ranked 13th in the world in 2010 and 11th in 2011, well below the likes of Australia, Germany and the Netherlands.

Belgium's journey to the top of the podium is an appealing story in various ways. But there is a collective will to their gold-medal winning effort at the quadrennial Games.

Hockey has burrowed into the peat in Belgium and taken hold. Everyone is encouraged to play. More people are watching. However, that wasn't the case in 2008, when for the first time in 32 years, the Belgium hockey team played in the Beijing Olympics. "I have to say it was pretty huge for the hockey world but not for the rest of the country," says midfielder Victor Wegnez, who was part of the Belgium team that won gold in Tokyo. "Hockey is not famous in Belgium, there were not a lot of images on TV, but everybody in the hockey world knew the importance of reaching the Olympic Games."

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Such has been Belgium's relationship with hockey over the last 10 years. It has been developed into an institutional obsession, seeded from the top-down through the national federation Hockey Belgium, the training camps and individuals. Now, the wheels are turning, the production lines thriving. From a young age, boys and girls are enrolled in the 'BE-GOLD' program, where they work on every aspect of becoming an athlete - technical, tactical, mental, physical and emotional. It gives players the flexibility to train while combining it with their studies. 

"It invites you to follow and trust the process through all classes of age (U14, U16, U18, U21, Red Lions). Before the final step into the Red Lions squad, you are invited to camps with the Red Lions. You get used to the culture of the team, the environment, the sacrifices, the lifestyle, to every little thing that is required to perform on the big stage," says Belgium goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch.

Vincent Vanasch

Belgium goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch exults after leading his side to the Olympic gold medal following a nerve-racking penalty shootout.   -  Special Arrangement

 

There's now an influx of talent from the grassroots up. The current team is a mix of youth and experience, with a spine built around the likes of Vanasch, Thomas Briels, Arthur van Doren and Alexander Hendrickx. Vanasch is the first goalkeeper to win three consecutive FIH Goalkeeper of the Year awards (2017, '18, '19). He is also a World and European Champion (2018 and 2019) and a Rio 2016 silver medallist.

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"We have to work harder than everyone in a smart way. We wanted to progress in a long term. Of course, we wanted to win every tournament, but we had no experience at the start. I see our journey like a marathon on a mountain. We didn’t want to win just once like a little sprint. We want to win multiple ones like during a marathon of 5-10-15-20 years," Vanasch says.

"We said before the Olympic Games, we have one mission. We wanted to make Belgium dream and smile again after a difficult year. We did it! One team, one mind, one country."

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