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DNA: Men Hockey World Cup: How Red Lions found their roar (12/20/2018)
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DNA: Men's Hockey World Cup: How Red Lions found their roar

Rutvick Mehta

"I have been with the national team for 10 years. At that time, we were ranked in double digits. We didn't even qualify for the World Cup in 2010. Eight years later, we're playing a final. It's amazing, isn't it?"

That's Belgian hockey star Tom Boon summarising rather briefly, and aptly, the evolution of his national team in a chat with DNA a day before their World Cup final against Netherlands.

On Sunday, the Belgium men's hockey team completed their incredible journey from being World Cup also-rans to becoming world champions, from mediocrity to supremacy — all of it in a matter of a few years.

The transformation in Belgium's hockey ecosystem is best reflected in a comparison of its rankings with India.

In 2006, Belgium held the 13th spot in the FIH world rankings, with India way ahead of them at No. 8. In 2008, Belgium occupied the 10th spot, while India dropped to 11th. In 2015, Belgium stood at No. 5, with India two spots behind. On Monday, Belgium became the new World No. 1, while India remained at fifth position.

While India's hockey tale over the last decade has been of stagnation, Belgium's has been of surge.

The Red Lions' defiant roar has two factors behind it: pumping in of money by the national federation and developing a solid grassroots programme that focussed on drafting talented youngsters into the national team.

"It might not have been seen outside, but the federation has really invested a lot in youth development," Arthur Van Doren, who was named the FIH Player of the Year as well as FIH Rising Star of the Year in 2017 and won this World Cup' best player award, said.

Birth of golden generation

It gave birth to Belgium's three golden generations: one which is in its late-20s now (the likes of Boon, Simon Gougnard, Loick Luypaert, Florent Van Aubel), one in the mid-20s (the likes of Van Doren, Nicolas de Kerpel, Emmanuel Stockbroekx, Alexander Hendrickx), and the latest crop in early-20s (the likes of Arthur de Sloover, Antoine Kina, Loick Luypaert).

Each of the three generations played an equal part in building a solid base of this current team, brick by brick.

"The earlier generation was European U-18 champion. My generation was European champion in U-18 and U-21 categories. And the current bunch finished second in the U-21 World Cup in 2016," the 24-year-old Van Doren said.

Shane McLeod, a Kiwi tasked with the role of spearheading this Belgian mission as head coach in 2015, then neatly cherry-picked the cream from the generational trio to make a nice blend of a top-notch hockey team.

McLeod didn't get carried away by the boys' 2016 Junior World Cup show in India, drafting just three of them into the squad for this senior World Cup. He knew the value that the relatively older and oldest would provide.

"This has been a very good generation of players that we've had, with a few youngsters coming in to add to the overall strength of our squad," McLeod said.

The personnel zeroed in, Belgium needed that one sign that told them they were on the right track, and they received a high dose of self-belief at the 2016 Rio Olympics that saw the team clinch a historic silver.

They had to be content being second best at the 2017 European Championship too, losing to the Dutch in the final.

They were losing battles, yet knew the war would be won at some point soon.

"Sometimes they say you have to lose a final to win a final," Belgium captain Thomas Briels said after the final, the gold medal glittering around his neck.

Opening cash box

Belgium's road to success is as much about the strength of the team as it about the support from outside.

Belgium laid out an ambitious plan for Olympic sports, with the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee launching the 'Be Gold' project in 2005.

It provided large funds to various national associations to identify and groom young talent for the long term, with the objective of making Belgium a top-eight nation at the Olympics in the future.

"It is the work of a lot of people," McLeod said.

"There is a lot of money that has been invested in our youth programmes, and we have hired very good coaches even in the U-16, U-18 categories so that they produce young world-class athletes," he added.

It raised the benchmark for federations, and changed the outlook of sport overall in the country.

Major sports like hockey and football were direct beneficiaries of 'Be Gold', and so were the lesser-followed ones.

"This year, we had Nina (Derwael) who was a world champion in gymnastics. The football team also did really well in FIFA World Cup (ended third)," Van Doren said.

"Belgium can be proud. It's a country that isn't considered to have a sports culture. I think we have been improving for a number of years and have some really talented people in our country. We aren't a lot of people but there's a big spirit and we are showing that on sports pitches," he added.

Spirit, self-criticism

Spirit is a word the Red Lions swear by.

The team might comprise three distinct set of generations, yet none feels threatened by the other. "We created the team with the right noble values and work environment," the 31-year-old Briels said.

"That's something we strived for. We really do our best for the young guys coming into the team, take them into the family, teach them our values, and hopefully when the older guys leave, the younger guys can teach those same set of values to the new guys who come in.

"It's a team sport, and you can only win with all 18 players. And this World Cup, we showed what a great team and a great family we are."

The vastly-experienced Boon added: "We just kept feeding our system with quality youngsters, and we've been all working together for a common goal for a few years.

"It's been a tough journey, but all of us have worked so hard for it. Everyone has believed in each other."

Everyone also places a mirror in front of each other, being the first to admit shortcomings themselves, individually and as a team.

"We are very ambitious internally," Van Doren said. "We are more critical to ourselves than the outsiders are. Maybe that's what we didn't have in the past. We can deal with criticisms. We can deal with people that underestimate us or criticize us."

People may continue to underestimate them, but the team knows its journey to the peak has only begun.

"This really isn't a one-off thing," McLeod said. "You should see Belgium performing really well over the next 4-10 years."

The captain agrees with his commander. "We don't want to stop here," Briels said. "Once you win, you want to keep winning. And with a team like this, I have no doubt we can."

Belgium overtake Australia to become new No. 1

A day after becoming world champions, Belgim rose to world No. 1 in the latest FIH rankings on Monday. The Red Lions rose two spots, pushing Australia down to second position. India remained at world No. 5 despit a below-par quarterfinal exit in Bhubaneswar.

BULLISH BELGIUM

Men’s hockey in Belgium has seen some great results in the last couple of years, and below is the list of them

Silver: 2016 Rio Olympics

Silver: 2016 Junior World Cup

Silver: 2017 European Championship

Gold: 2018 Senior World Cup

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