Belgian hockey: It ain’t a sprint, it’s a marathon on a mountain

Belgium’s champion brilliance, and its ability to match the traditional hockey powerhouses stride for stride, have been marvels of the modern age. But this marvel has been more than a decade in the making.

Mission accomplished: “We said before the Olympic Games, we have one mission! We wanted to make Belgium dream and smile again after a difficult year. We wanted to make Belgium proud, and Belgian people could identify themselves in our team values. We did it!,” says goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch.   -  Getty Images

On August 5, 2021, at about 1 p.m. Central European Summer Time, a motley crew of players from Belgium found itself on the verge of history. If Belgium beat Australia in the penalty shootout at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, the Red Lions, as they’re known, would be crowned Olympic champions.

As Belgium's heroic goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch denied Australia's Jacob Whetton his fifth penalty retake and handed Belgium a 3-2 victory, it was a case of one better for the Belgians who won the silver medal in Rio, losing to Argentina. Vanasch recalls the mood on that victorious night in Tokyo. “After that very final save, I remember getting up, looking at the boys… they were crazy, tears of joy, and came at me like a white wave… Great moment,” he says. “We have faced so many obstacles to achieve our dream. I think it reveals our character and how much resilience we have got. It also shows how much love and trust we have for each other. We are a special team. I had a special thought to my wife, my little son, my family and for Belgium. We said before the Olympic Games, we have one mission! We wanted to make Belgium dream and smile again after a difficult year. We wanted to make Belgium proud, and Belgian people could identify themselves in our team values. We did it!”

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

Has there been a more compelling story in hockey history? In 2011, Belgium was ranked 11th in the world, well below Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. The gulf between the top three teams and a No. 11 is vast. It might seem odd to be overwhelmed by Belgium’s excellence now. Its champion brilliance, and ability to match the traditional hockey powerhouses stride for stride, have been marvels of the modern age. But this marvel has been more than a decade in the making.

Gaining popularity: Alexancer Hendrickx thinks Belgium’s upswing is the result of “more training, better infrastructure and more funding. Before all players had to work and trained 1-2 times a week. Now we are full-time hockey players and train six days a week. Then with good results, the sport gets more attention, more kids start to play, more talent develops itself to become future top hockey players,” he says.   -  AP

 

“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…

"Why on a mountain, because you have to climb it to the top. Of course, everyone is different and everyone has his own pathway but we are going to give our very best and try to become the best version of ourselves to reach the top and make the team stronger. When you lose a game, a knockout game, a final, it’s important to fall forward (not backward because you are going to be back at the start of the mountain), to learn from the mistakes and to keep moving forward with all your experience,” Vanasch says.

Belgium is a tiny country with a population of just 11 million. To put the nation’s success into context, there are fewer people in Belgium than in the entire city of Mumbai, which has a population of 12.5 million (2011 census). And yet, Belgium has 53 FIH certified hockey fields, four more than India’s. 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. “I think that the vision of Marc Coudron (Royal Belgian Hockey Association (KBHB) president) about Belgian hockey was outstanding. He knew what we needed, and he worked hard to give all the tools to the national teams to perform on a higher level. He said: ‘I m not afraid to get surrounded by people who are better than me,’” says Vanasch.

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“You also have a generation like mine which sacrifices everything to live for hockey (family, friends, study, holidays,…), to be proud to be Belgian. We had several dreams, and we achieved them all… Now we want to hunt back and show that it was no accident.”

Reaching the final in Rio 2016 was special for the team. In the semifinals, Belgium beat the Netherlands for the first time. “We learned a lot and we knew we had to work harder and smarter on the details and on the momentum of the game. We didn’t change our hockey style but we gained experience and maturity. The year after, we lost the Euro hockey final against the Netherlands after leading 2-0. This was also a big disappointment but we went back to work, believing that our way was a good one. Finally, we took gold at the World Cup 2018 in India and gold in 2019 in Antwerp and now gold in 2021 in Tokyo. A great achievement for the team, the staff, the federation… and especially for Belgium to win the four tournaments in one Olympic cycle!,” says Vanasch.

The year 2008 was a watershed moment for Belgian hockey for that was the first time in 32 years that it played the Olympics. It coincided with an equally significant event... eight-time Olympic field hockey champion India didn’t make it to the Beijing Games, marking the first time in 80 years it had failed to qualify for the competition... a symbolic passing of the baton if you will. From the once undisputed champion to the eventual world-beater. “I have to say qualifying in 2008 was pretty huge for the hockey world but not for the rest of the country,” says Belgian midfielder Victor Wegnez. “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.”

All praise for coach: Midfielder Victor Wegnez credited head coach Shane McLeod for the turnaround. “Our style has evolved a lot due to him. Before Shane, the team was playing ok but as a robot, there was no room for freedom and you could see everybody was playing for his own. When Shane arrived, he gave a lot of trust to the players, freedom and love and we started playing for each other and fighting for each other,” he says.   -  AP

 

Wegnez credited head coach Shane McLeod for the turnaround. “Our style has evolved a lot due to him. Before Shane, the team was playing ok but as a robot, there was no room for freedom and you could see everybody was playing for his own. When Shane arrived, he gave a lot of trust to the players, freedom and love and we started playing for each other and fighting for each other.”

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 Vanasch.

According to Vanasch’s teammate, Wagnez, all the youth categories in Belgium are competing to win because they train together during the year and the level of the championship is way better than before. “We had a lot of foreigners which helped to increase the level,” says Wegnez.

The result of this fluid and holistic approach has been the ultimate two-way team: doughty and disciplined in defence, ruthless and clever in the attack. On the forefront of the Belgian attack in Tokyo was Alexander Hendrickx, whose barnstorming form blew India away in the semifinal. He scored three of the five Belgium goals in the match. “It was one of the toughest games for us in the tournament. Especially as it was in really hot temperatures. The score at the end was convincing, but during the game, it was a tight matchup. We had to play our own game and stay structured really well in the heat. I think that allowed us, in the end, to push the pedal and win the game.”

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Asked about India’s penalty corner defence, which was repeatedly put to test by Belgium in the semifinal, Hendrickx says, “India’s PC defence was one of the better ones at the Olympics. Hockey games are often decided by penalty corners, so of course, every game was key for us to get as many corners as we could, to increase the chances of scoring.”

Hendrickx thinks Belgium’s upswing is the result of “more training, better infrastructure and more funding. Before all players had to work and trained 1-2 times a week. Now we are full-time hockey players and train six days a week. Then with good results, the sport gets more attention, more kids start to play, more talent develops itself to become future top hockey players.”

This is, of course, an unfinished tale. Belgium’s plans go well beyond Tokyo, to Paris in 2024, then Los Angeles in 2028. Part of the excitement here is not just the promise the future holds, but the sense of hope in Belgium’s orchestrated miracle.