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2018 World Cup News
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Decade long dream come true for the Red Lions (12/17/2018)
--Errol D’Cruz
Belgian sport burst into euphoria after their hockey team lifted the Odisha World Cup in Bhubaneswar on Sunday after a heart-stopping shootout against three-time champions the Netherlands. Winning the country’s first ever team sport world title will reportedly draw the Red Lions to a grand reception in Brussels where the mayor has invited them to appear in the city hall’s balcony on Tuesday. In a sense, you could say the World Cup has made a visit to its former home. undefined

For long, the Federation Internationale de Hockey (FIH), was based in Brussels before moving to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2005. And for decades, Rene Frank, a Belgian, presided over the destiny of hockey as FIH president. During his tenure from 1966 to his death in 1983, hockey metamorphosed into a major sport.

Frank, was once referred to as a “benevolent dictator”. Sweeping rule changes that included the change of the three-player offside rule to two, the discontinuation of the bully-off and the hand-stop at penalty corners, the hit-ins instead of the push-ins and the most revolutionary – the introduction of artificial surfaces – were catalyzed by his foresight. undefined

It all added up to a sport, modernized and dynamic, the trappings of which were plain to see in Belgium’s rise to the pinnacle in Bhubaneswar after being on the threshold for almost a decade.

It all started with a last-gasp 4-3 win over Germany in the 2007 European Nations championship bronze medal play-off in Manchester that secured Belgium a place in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and deemed their beaten opponents to take the long route towards qualification.

On Sunday, before an appreciative 15,000 crowd, the Red Lions beat their illustrious neighbours 3-2 in a sudden-death shootout after an hour’s regulation time produced no goals.

They showed fine character in taking an unfavourable referral in their stride after already having broken into celebration at the end of the set of five. It broke a depressing run of silver medals – twice at the Euro Nations championships (2013 and 2017) – and the 2016 Rio Olympics. undefined

The World Cup now has a sixth winner after Pakistan (4), the Netherlands and Australia (3 each) and India have shared titles at 14 editions played thus far with the first one in Barcelona in 1971. Belgium remained unbeaten in the competition, having come through their pool as second best after a 2-2 draw with India and 2-1 and 5-1 wins over Canada and South Africa respectively.

The Red Lions saw the positives of playing an extra match, the cross-overs, where they pummeled Pakistan 5-0. A 2-1 win over twice-champions Germany in the quarterfinals was followed by a 6-0 rout over England in the semifinals. A goalless draw in the final brought their goal record to 22-5.

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Despite the absence of goals in open play, the Belgians and Dutch produced a match worthy of a major final. Belgium became the first team to win a World Cup final without forcing a penalty corner, somewhat summing up the suspect potency of the award in the tournament where, at the other end of the pitch, Dutchman Mink van der Weerden experienced a dismal World Cup.

Aurthur van Doren, emerged best player of the tournament, reiterating his status as 2017 FIH Player of the Year. Alexander Hendrickx, another key defender, emerged joint-top scorer with Australia’s Blake Govers with seven goals apiece.

Vincent Vanasch, however, made the crucial difference between two well-matched sides with a heroic performance in the shootout which went to sudden-death as well as in regulation play. undefined

There were similarities in Belgium’s triumph here and Pakistan’s in 1994 in Sydney. Defender Simon Gougnard stayed with team in their road to glory despite the demise of his ailing father two days before the tournament’s conclusion.

Tahir Zaman did the same.

Both nations beat the Dutch in the tie-breaker in the final – Pakistan doing so in the old system of penalty strokes.

Thomas Briels, the ebullient forward captaining the side, asserted that the stupendous performance by his team was no more, nor less, than a team effort while dedicating the triumph to Gougnard and his family. “I couldn’t be more proud. We are the world champions and we showed today that our best player is the team,” said the 31-year-old stalwart of 315 international matches.

Briels, a podiatrist by profession, inspired to help his team to put their best foot forward. Ironically, like several of his teammates, Briels plays for Oranje-Rood in the Netherlands, the country they beat in final. So does Arthur van Doren, 24, who plies his trade with the iconic HC Bloemendaal. And in Shane McLeod, a New Zealander who loves living in Belgium, the national team has made rapid progress since he took over in 2015. undefined

(Author Errol D'Cruz)

The Belgians had the personnel to execute any role in Bhubaneswar. Their draw against India in the back-drop of a 15,000 vociferous and partisan crowd showed character and ability as they played the kicking-back to perfection to equalize late in the game. Then, in the final, the team rode a roller coaster of emotions after they thought Arthur van Sloover won it for them in the shootout.

Florent van Aubel, a veteran forward of 203 international matches, showed remarkable composure to fire home past goalkeeper of the tournament Pirmin Blaak before Vanasch forced Jeroen Hertzberger to send his backhander over the crosspiece.

The celebration this time around were final. Not only were Belgium World champions, the epic win took them to No. 1 in the world rankings.

Pics: s2h photographer Rakesh

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