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December 23, 2018

Belgium: The new hockey powerhouse


December 23, 2018

The triumph might’ve come in the most atypical of circumstances, with the first ever 0-0 draw in a World Cup final resulting in an absolute thriller of a penalty shootout, but Sunday’s World Cup win in Bhubaneswar has reaffirmed Belgium as the best side in the world.

Belgium had lost out to Argentina in the 2016 Olympics final, in what was a battle of the first-timers, and made it back to back silver medals at major events at the 2017 Euro Championship. And with Argentina conquering the Olympics and Belgium the World Cup – maiden major triumphs for both sides – champions are emerging in the sport outside of the usual suspects.

However, silver and gold in the two biggest events mean that Belgium sit at the summit as the new powerhouse of hockey.

Before the 2013 Euro Championship, Belgium had never played a major final. In fact, one has to go all the way back to 1920 for their only podium finish at the 1920 Olympics which were held in Belgium.

Belgian hockey’s rise to the top of the game is a result of a systematic reform and long-term planning that have delivered the results in recent years.

In addition to the 2013 European Championship, the signs of Belgium growing at the global stage were evident at the 2014 World Cup, when they looked a lot better than the eventual fifth-place finish. Being drawn with the then unstoppable and eventual champions Australia, Belgium lost to England 3-2 in their final group game owing to a 66th-minute Iain Lewers’ goal.

At the 2016 Olympics, Belgium beat Australia and easily overcame the likes of Great Britain and Spain in their pool, followed by back to back 3-1 wins against India and Netherlands in the quarters and semis, before losing out to the Argentinians in the final.

Belgium entered the World Cup as one of the favourites, but the dearth of a glittering tradition meant that the focus was on the historically bigger names. They would eventually overcome a few of them en route to their maiden gold medal.

Belgium’s World Cup didn’t get off to the perfect start as they drew with India 2-2 despite taking an early lead. That allowed India to eventually top the group that featured Canada and South Africa on goal difference.

That, for Belgium, meant a crossover contest where they played Pakistan. The four-time world champions, who still keep their position as the most successful World Cup side after neither Australia nor Netherlands could add to their three gold medals each, were swept away 5-0 to underscore the diverging strides Belgium and Pakistan have been taking in the sport.

The second hockey big name that Belgium outdid was Germany in the quarterfinals in a closely contested match that ended 2-1 in their favour. Belgium’s win in the quarters meant that three of the four pool winners – Argentina, Germany and India – were knocked out in the last eight by teams that had to come through the crossovers, perhaps signaling that the additional matchup proved to be an advantage and not a disadvantage in this year’s World Cup format.

In the semifinal, they faced an England side that had just knocked out the reigning Olympics champions Argentina in the quarterfinals. The 6-0 mauling of England gave Belgium all the momentum they needed for the final, as they looked on to the second semifinal between Netherlands and Australia.

Australia and Netherlands had contested the 2014 World Cup final. Between the two, they have three World Cups each, which is second only to Pakistan’s tally of four. While the shootout in the final was perhaps the most thrilling of all time – thanks in part to technology – the one in the semifinal was pretty enthralling as well. You won’t see too many better penalty shoots than the one by young Thijs van Dam who scored with a spin to keep Netherlands alive.

Unfortunately, van Dan missed the crucial fifth penalty in the final, which could’ve won Netherlands the World Cup. While the 0-0 final was a cagey affair, with neither side willing to commit too much forward and both wary of making the decisive mistake, it was still tactical European hockey at its finest – even if it didn’t produce too many circle penetrations on the given day.

With the Champions Trophy now defunct, the sport is set to introduce the Hockey Pro League. The six-month league that would run from January to June featuring nine top sides. These include Pakistan who will be playing their ‘home’ matches in Argentina, Belgium, England, Germany and the Netherlands.

After faring supremely well in the global events, it would be interesting to see how Belgium perform in this longer league format, with the semis between the top four and the final to be played in the Netherlands in June.

Needless to say, the world champions would be the favourites, followed by the chasing pack that now features the likes of the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, Germany and England.

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