Belgian diamonds that took a decade to polish!

It is easy to label Belgium’s victory as a fairytale or a miracle but that would be unfair. The triumph in Bhubaneswar, 7698 km away from Brussels, took the team a decade of planning, losing and persevering.

The Belgian hockey team finally accomplished its federation’s ‘Be Gold’ programme.   -  AP

On December 16, in front of an appreciative, over-capacity crowd of 17,000 in the temple city of Bhubaneswar, Thomas Briels lifted the Hockey World Cup and walked into history books as the first Belgian to do so in any team sport.

Forty-eight hours later, the Red Lions were singing La Brabanconne, the Belgian national anthem, in the Brussels city square, with more than 6,000 supporters cheering the team for its triumph in a sport that doesn’t rate anywhere near the top in the country.

It is easy to label Belgium’s victory as a fairytale or a miracle but that would be unfair. The triumph in Bhubaneswar, 7,698km away from Brussels, took the team a decade of planning, losing and persevering in what it felt was the best way to accomplish the ‘Be Gold’ programme that the Belgian hockey federation had ambitiously set out for itself in 2008.

The scale of things and nations apart, Belgium hockey’s golden decade — and coach Shane McLeod has warned this is not the end but just the beginning — has quite a few lessons for the Indian team, not the least of which happens to be an investment in the grassroots and faith in the system.

Indian and Belgian hockey have had different histories and trajectories in the last 10 years. Belgium won its only world-level medal at the 1920 Olympics, a bronze, before the recent revival of the game. India, on the other hand, was long a powerhouse but slipped since the 1980 Olympics, falling down the rungs with the inability to qualify for the 2008 edition the nadir.

More than 6000 supporters cheered the Red Lions in the Brussels city square despite the fact that hockey doesn’t rate anywhere near the top in the country as a sport.   -  AFP

 

Since then, Belgium has climbed from being 13th in the world to top of the rankings, adding an Olympic silver and the World Cup to its kitty. Belonging to a continent where major competition and world-class infrastructure are only a short ride away and crossing borders as easy as walking across the street has only helped. India too has grown, not as systematically but more haphazardly in keeping with its overall sporting system, to be world number five — the only Asian country in top-10 and fighting a lot more odds, including political ones.

But the differences are more stark. McLeod is Belgium’s fifth coach since 2008, all foreign. Unlike India, the changes have been logical and, more importantly, have not drastically altered the structure. Every coach has brought in something new and incorporated it without tampering with the existing system.

More interesting is the way the Belgian federation went about assimilating its foreign coaches, making it a bottoms-up process instead of a top-down experiment. When Adam Commens took charge in 2008, he had already been coaching at the Royal Antwerp Hockey Club. He was just one of the many Australians who became part of the Belgian system and brought in the attacking, flamboyant flair to the European defensive doughtiness. Current Australia chief coach Colin Batch joined KHC Dragons and John Bessell became the performance analyst in 2009.

Commens made way for Batch as chief coach in 2012 who was followed by Marc Lammers and Jeroen Delmee, currently with the French side. McLeod came on board in 2015. At no point, however, did the change of staff mean a change of playing structure or chopping and changing of the players, most of the whom have been together ever since.

“They can actually smell the others on the field, which gives them that added advantage to be a tad quicker than the other teams,” McLeod had admitted. “We are a family. Emmanuel Stockbroekx (out with injury just before the tournament) made a 50-minute video featuring families of all the players here and sent us before the final,” Briels revealed after winning the World Cup. Small things that go a long way in building a secure group.

Members of the Indian team stand with their coach Harendra Singh after their loss against The Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-final. There are fears of Harendra being replaced.   -  AP

 

Small things are what Harendra Singh tried to incorporate in his coaching, knowing well his wards had little need for technical information and more of adapting to changing game plans and trusting their teammates. It seemed to be working at the World Cup but while the Belgians have been doing it together for a decade, the Indians had less than a year to get used to it. Till last year, the players actually bothered little with every new coach. “What’s the point, maximum one year and he will be out,” used to be the common refrain.

India also had six foreign coaches since 2009 starting with Jose Brasa, perhaps the most loved by the Indian players and, along with Gabriel Jesus Pallares, the real architect of bringing in ideas of fitness, scientific training and technology to Indian hockey. The changes or the appointments, however, had little connect with merit or results. There are murmurs of Harendra being on the radar now, keeping with the tradition and regardless of the unanimous views, both at home and abroad, that the team is on the right track and needs continuity to succeed in the next two-four years.

Belgium also benefited from having a common coaching and training structure at all levels right down to the Under-14s. It helped create the next rung of players — the Arthur van Dorens and Alexander Hendrickxs to carry over the work of Briels and John-John Dohmen, and in turn followed by the likes of Victor Wegnez and Arthur de Sloover. India, on the other hand, has concentrated only on the elite, the core group of 35 at the senior level and another 35-odd at the junior. Beyond that, the system continues to be languishing in the past.

Some of the prestigious domestic tournaments continue to be played in the older 70-minute, two halves format! “Who does that any more? We need a streamlined domestic structure, I have already given my suggestions on this but it needs to be done,” India’s High Performance Manager David John rued.

But the biggest problem is coaching the coaches. Barring Harendra and a few in the national set-up — Jude Felix and Baljit Singh Saini, for example — Indian coaches too are stuck in the past, with little or no idea about modern hockey or even the basics of technology. “Some of them cannot even operate a laptop,” claimed a former national player. It remains anyone’s guess how the current national players would go about fitting into their respective departmental teams on the domestic circuit immediately after the World Cup.

As consultant in 2008, Ric Charlesworth had prepared a huge tome of blueprint on what Indian hockey needed to do if it wished to reach the top. Where is it now?   -  Special Arrangement

 

The federation too is to be blamed for not enforcing uniform rules across the domestic calendar. The size of India may be an excuse for things being difficult but when every event needs Hockey India’s permission to be considered a recognised tournament, there is no reason for the federation not insisting on organisers following international rules. Neither is there a reason why, there cannot be a step-up method of selecting players for the national camps — from districts to states to zones and upwards — instead of simply picking them up randomly at the national championships every year.

As consultant in 2008, Ric Charlesworth had prepared a huge tome of blueprint on what Indian hockey needed to do if it wished to reach the top. That has either disappeared with the change of administration since then — from the erstwhile IHF to HI — or is lost in the unending depths of Indian sporting officialdom. But the one thing he continues to maintain is that hockey remains a sport with enough pulling power and should be promoted and marketed well in India.

In Bhubaneswar, that there was no India in the final, or even in action on the last day of the competition was of little concern to the people of the city that prides itself for both its love and knowledge of hockey. The average daily attendance at the venue was around 12,500 – including non-India days.

The city has become a favourite for the International Hockey Federation to host major tournaments, the World Cup being the third instance of the city and the state machinery going all out to make it a success. For more than a month, all roads led to the Kalinga Stadium. Every corner of the city declared it was the place where ‘Stars became Legends’. Everyone on the street knew there was a World Cup on. For once, the Indian hockey players were being mobbed for selfies across the city.

The Fan Villages inside the venue were a major draw and took the sport to the youngest visitor. Every major hotel and restaurant had billboards and cut-outs of the tournament and its stars. For a country that is often equated with only cricket, the Hockey World Cup was an example of how enough promotions and inclusive activities can draw people to other sports.

On the field, despite the hyperbole, a team ranked fifth in the world finished sixth in the World Cup with one of the youngest and inexperienced sides in the competition. Odisha and the Indian team did their bit to raise hopes of yet another hockey revival. It’s now time for the authorities to add theirs for Indian hockey’s own Brussels Grand-Place moment.