The defending champions Belgium made its presence felt as it arrived for the FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023 on Friday, creating buzz at the Biju Patnaik International Airport with a large gathering of fans to welcome them.
Led by Felix Denayer, the Red Lions hope to repeat its last World Cup performance and retain the trophy. If Belgium is able to do so, it will become only the fourth nation after Pakistan (1978, 1982), Germany (2002, 2006), and Australia (2010, 2014) to win two consecutive editions of the Men’s World Cup.
Belgium is placed in Pool B along with Germany, Japan and Korea, and will begin its campaign on January 14 against Korea in Bhubaneswar.
Denayer’s side has gained confidence from training and winning the matches they played in Spain. The Belgium captain said, “We are really well prepared. We have been to a training camp in Spain, where we won all our games. So, there is a lot of confidence in our camp that we will do well in the tournament.”
“But obviously, we know it’s always a really tough competition, so we are really, really excited to get started.”
Denayer further listed out the teams that he believes will pose a tough challenge for his side, and explained why retaining the trophy would not be an easy feat for his team.
“Well, there are a lot of favourites, I think. Obviously, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, and India at home are always strong opponents. Then there are teams who are performing well such as England, and Argentina, so I think it will not be an easy competition for anyone.”
Interestingly, Shane McLeod, the experienced coach who led the Belgium team to the World Cup and Tokyo Olympics 2020 trophy wins, is returning with the contingent as the assistant coach, after a brief sabbatical.
Apart from him, there are several experienced campaigners in the squad as well, including veteran John-John Dohmen who has earned over 400 international caps.\
Indian crowds is best hockey crowd in the world: Coach Heuvel
The memories of the thrilling finale between the Netherlands and Belgium from the 2018 World Cup are still fresh in the minds of the Belgium players. The match that was decided by a shoot-out had witnessed intense drama after Arthur de Sloover’s winning shot in the shoot-out was denied after a review, and the Belgium team had to stop their celebrations midway.
But Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vansach managed to make the Netherlands player Jonas de Geus miss his final shot, and the celebrations re-started in the Belgium camp as they won their first-ever World Cup trophy.
When asked if the tournament will witness similar dramatic moments this time around as well, Denayer said, “Yeah, I think the tournament will be a challenge, but we also have the experience so we feel confident and we are very hungry to retain the trophy. We are an ambitious group. And I think we need these kinds of challenges to perform at our best level.”
Meanwhile, Belgium head coach, Michel van den Heuvel expressed delight to see the excitement among the fans in Odisha for the upcoming tournament. At the same time, he explained why everyone always enjoys playing in front of Indian crowds.
“We love to be here and again in Bhubaneswar. This is what we play for the Indian crowds because it’s the best hockey crowd in the world. We are here to defend our world title and we are prepared very well for that. We are looking forward to the start of the tournament,” he said.
“The crowd here is always fantastic. Everybody is really excited to be here and to play for this crowd. So, it’s not difficult to manage at all, despite the loud cheers.”
Coach Heuvel explained how the presence of such individuals in the contingent will be helpful for his team in the competition. “Well, all of them are very experienced and they know the game. They have played here before and won the trophy. So, even though, we are under difficult circumstances this time, their presence will help the team. It’s so great to have them in our squad,” he signed off.