1. Belgium (WR 2)
How it qualified: Third place, EuroHockey Championship
Previous World Cups: 1973 – 8th, 1978 – 14th, 1994 – 11th, 2002 – 14th, 2014 – 5th, 2018 – 1st
World Cup record against India: 1 Win, 2 Losses, 1 Draw
2018: India 2-2 Belgium (league); 2014: India 2-3 Belgium (league); 1994: India 4-2 Belgium (league); 1978: India 1-0 Belgium (league)
Belgium hockey’s golden generation has achieved quadruple gold in World Cup, EuroHockey Championship, FIH Pro League and the Olympics in a glorious four-year cycle between 2018 and 2022. After the third place in its defence of the Euro gold, now, the challenge would be to show that the Red Lions retain the hunger and desire to replicate the success. And the cycle will once again begin from where it all started four years ago — India.
A remarkable feature of Belgium’s success has been its continuity in selection over the last four years. The Red Lions are returning with 17 players from their 2018 World Cup and Olympic-winning squad, and the 2021 EuroHockey squad. Retired captain and forward Thomas Briels is the one to miss out and Tanguy Cosyns takes his place instead. The only time Belgium was beaten in regulation time of a major international competition since the 2018 World Cup was the group stage loss to England in the 2021 EuroHockey.
The young generation of Belgian talent which led the nation to unprecedented success, now comes into the World Cup with a squad bearing an average age of 30. While Shane McLeod vacated the head coach role after the Olympics, it was his assistant Michel van den Heuvel, who took over. Furthermore, McLeod returned from a break to become Heuvel’s assistant in May until the World Cup to ease the succession.
Felix Denayer, the current captain, set the intentions straight ahead of the World Cup, when he told FIH, “We have had a taste of victory and we are definitely hungry for more.”
Despite the change at the top, Belgium has continued to perform at a high level. While several high-profile teams opted for a reset with fresh blood in the FIH Pro League, Belgium opted to field its tried-and-tested squad, and finished runner-up in June. Among the nine teams involved, Belgium conceded the least number of goals (25) and was only behind India and Netherlands in terms of the goals scored (52).
While Belgium, ranked No. 2, will be among the entertaining sides on display, make no mistake, the experienced pros will be aiming to make it back-to-back crowns in Bhubaneswar.
Key men: In the fast-paced attacking unit, Tom Boon will be the focal point. The 32-year-old forward has a wide range of skills and has 100-plus goals to his name. He was the second highest scorer in the recently concluded Pro League with 12 goals. Defender Alexander Hendrickx is among the most renowned penalty corner experts in the game with an excellent conversion record. Hendrickx finished as the top-scorer at the Tokyo Games with a staggering 14 goals in just eight matches.
2. Germany (WR 4)
How it qualified: Second place, EuroHockey Championship
Previous World Cups: 1971 – 5th, 1973 – 3rd, 1975 – 3rd, 1978 – 4th, 1982 – 2nd, 1986 – 3rd, 1990 – 4th, 1994 – 4th, 1998 – 3rd, 2002 – 1st, 2006 – 1st, 2010 – 2nd, 2014 – 6th, 2018 – 5th.
World Cup record against India: 4 Wins, 2 Losses, 2 Draw
2006: India 2-3 Germany (league); 1998: India 1-4 Germany (league); 1994: India 1-2 Germany (league); 1986: India 2-2 West Germany (league); 1978: West Germany 7-0 India (league); 1975: India 3-1 West Germany (league); 1973: West Germany 0-0 India (league); 1971: India 1-0 West Germany (league).
When success came, it arrived in pairs. Successive world crowns in 2002 and 2006, Olympics golds in 2008 and 2012, and EuroHockey golds in 2011 and 2013. But German hockey hasn’t tasted glory since.
Germany underwent a change in coaching as Andre Henning took over the reins late last year after Kais Al Saadi’s contract wasn’t extended after the Olympics. Henning led the junior team to the World Cup in India in 2013. The current squad has 11 new faces compared to the 2018 group and the 2021 Olympics squad. The Honamas focus turned to youth and building a strong core for the next generation, and opted for a fresh squad for the 2021-22 Pro League. In the upcoming World Cup, eight players from the squad have under 50 caps to their names.
Skipper Mats Grambusch hailed Henning’s approach since his arrival and has pointed at a change from a state of mind with the training methods. In November, the young German team beat Belgium 3-2 in the ongoing Pro League in Argentina. The two teams have faced each other often in recent times, including two friendlies in Spain, and the fact that it can overcome the reigning champion would have been the belief in injection it needed heading into the World Cup.
With technically sound players in the ranks, Germany’s play will be focussed on possession and having a solid defensive shape, and minimising mistakes at the back. In the 2021-22 Pro League, the young team finished fourth and had the fourth-best scoring and defensive record. The goals were spread out among the group with Tom Grambusch, Thies Prinz and Gonzalo Peillat scoring five each.
Key men: Defender Peillat, who has won an Olympic gold medal and was the 2014 World Cup top-scorer with Argentina, got the clearance to make his international debut with Germany earlier this year after receiving a German passport. Peillat’s inclusion will be a shot in the arm with the 30-year-old considered to be one of the best drag flickers in the game.
Experienced forwards Christopher Ruhr and Nikas Wellen hold the key in attack with their incisive attacking runs and their ability to fashion chances out of nothing. With a good balance of old pros and young legs, this German team could surprise many and go deep in the tournament.
3. South Korea (WR 10)
How it qualified: First place, Asia Cup
1994 – 8th, 1998 – 7th, 2002 – 4th, 2006 – 4th, 2010 – 6th, 2014 – 10th
World Cup record against India: 3 Wins, 2 Losses
2014: India 3-0 South Korea (9/10 playoff); 2006: India 1-2 South Korea (league); 2002: India 1-2 South Korea (league); 1998: India 3-4 South Korea (league); 1994: India 2-0 South Korea (league).
German captain Mats Grambusch joked that the Eastern Asian teams probably ‘don’t even know themselves what they are playing right now’ regarding their playing style and it’s likely that both Belgium and Germany might find that to be the case with South Korea when they come up against the Asian Champions trophy and Asia Cup winner.
It’s been six years since both Belgium and Germany have faced Korea and that might add a slight advantage for the Asian team, which is back on the world stage after eight years. Interestingly, none of the players who took part in the Asia Cup win in May have been called up for the World Cup. The World Cup group’s average age is 33, but it will bank on its experienced stars to take the fight to the big two in the group. Jang Jonghyun, Lee Namyong and Lee Seunghoon are on the wrong side of 35 but remain Korea’s key players. The senior squad is coming off a short Nations Cup programme recently, where it clinched third place. A penalty shootout defeat denied it an opportunity to make the final.
Key man: Jonghyun, the 38-year-old defender, continues to be a potent penalty corner specialist with seven strikes in five matches. He was also instrumental in the Champions Trophy win in 2021 with 10 goals.
4. Japan (WR 16)
How it qualified: Fourth place, Asia Cup
1971 – 9th, 1973 – 10th, 2002 – 12th, 2006 – 9th
World Cup record against India: 2 Losses, 1 Draw
2002: India 2-2 Japan (league); 1973: India 5-0 Japan (league); 1971: India 5-0 Japan (league).
Japan returns to the World Cup, missing the last three editions, after finishing fourth in the Asia Cup. After the humbling 11th-place finish in the home Olympics, Japan will be keen to put up a better show. But even with the surprise element, Samurai Japan might find it hard to overcome the giants in the group. Head coach Takahashi Akira has a young group for the World Cup with an average age of 26 and only one 30-year-old in captain and midfielder Seren Tanaka. Veteran forwards Kento Tanaka, who was voted the player of the Champions Trophy, and Kazuma Murata miss out. Manabu Yamashita, who captained the Olympics team, has also faced the axe.
Japan had an underwhelming preparation in the lead-up to the World Cup after a sixth-place finish in the Nations Cup. It suffered defeats against higher-ranked opponents South Korea and Malaysia and lost in a shootout to France. It only managed to beat lower-ranked Canada and Pakistan.
Key man: Defender Ken Nagayoshi is the penalty corner specialist in the team with six conversions this year alone.
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