Rio Olympics 2016: Belgium - The new force in world hockey
Belgium displayed a disciplined and clinical performance to beat India 3-1 in the Olympic quarterfinals. Nicknamed the “Red Lions”, Belgium have played like a top contender for the title in the run up to the semifinal clash against the Netherlands.
The Red Lions have scored 24 goals in the tournament out of which 23 of them have been field goals, which is remarkable in modern day hockey. Though their conversion of penalty corners seem on the lower side, converting just one out of twenty penalty corners they earned in the tournament. But their defenders have guarded them strongly conceding just 6 goals out which two have come from the thirteen penalty corners they have allowed so far.
Currently coached by the New Zealander Shane McLeod and led by three-time Olympian John-John Dohmen, the Belgian team is certainly the most improved side in the world since the Beijing Olympics. A decade back this Belgian side was just a pushover in the world hockey. First, they surged ahead of traditional Asian powers like India, Pakistan, South Korea and Malaysia. Now they are here to challenge the world leaders like Australia, Germany and Netherlands.
A planned surge to the top of the hockey world
The journey into the top squads in the world over the past years did not happen instantaneously. Belgium had a planned program and structure to improve their hockey from the grass root level. As their former coach had said during Word League final at India in December 2014, “It’s a 15-year program because such improvement does not happen in a short term. We have elaborate programs for not just the national team but also intense youth programs. Players who came into the system 10 years ago are now in the national team.”
Hockey in Belgium is the sixth most popular sport, well one can say the third most prevalent team sport after football and basketball. It’s not just growing in terms of the number of players but also is watched a lot on television. Now with Belgium reaching the semifinals in the Rio Olympics, it’s going to be all positives for Belgian hockey.
In Beijing 2008, Belgium qualified in Olympic hockey after 32 years. The Red Lions last played in 1976 before Beijing missing only Olympic once in 1932 at Los Angeles, USA. At home, in 1920 Antwerp, Olympics, Belgium had won the bronze finishing third out of four teams in round-robin league. Hence this will be Belgium’s first ever semifinal in a world level major tournament apart from 2015 World League wherein they finished second.
The rise of the Red Lions: Video uploaded by YouTube user Cairns Hockey Online
Belgian hockey history dates back to 1902 and their first hockey club was formed 1904. Three years later in 1907 Belgian Hockey Association was formed. Belgium played its first international match against Germany and was one of the founding members of the International Hockey Federation. But it is just in the recent years Belgium has become a force to recon in the international hockey arena.
The highlight of their comeback to Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 was holding the eventual gold medalist Germany to a 1-1 draw. The Red Lions’ only win in Beijing came against the host China and lost the other matches to Spain, New Zealand and South Korea.
In the build-up to the London Olympic Games, they finished fourth in the 2011 Euro Hockey Nations Championship losing the bronze medal match to England in extra time. The Euro Hockey semifinal also gave them a berth in London Olympics. Later in the same year they also defeated India in the finals of 2011 Men's Hockey Champions Challenge I, which gave them their maiden entry to Champions Trophy 2012 in Melbourne.
So by the time London 2012 Olympics arrived Belgium was much more formidable side. Though they lost to the eventual finalists Germany and Netherlands in the group matches, they beat the Asian giants South Korea and India. They drew 1-1 with New Zealand and were placed third in their group. In the classification match play – off they beat Spain 5-2 to finish fifth.
In this Olympics, they have overcome the jinx with the number five. They finished fifth at the 2012 London Olympics, the Champions Trophy in Melbourne the same year and the Champions Trophy in London this year, as well as at the 2014 World Cup in the Netherlands.
Since Barcelona 1992 only three countries, Germany, Netherlands, and Australia, have won gold in the men’s hockey competition in Summer Olympics. Belgium definitely looks to challenge this in Rio. There semifinal opponents Netherlands looks much confident side after defeating the number one team Australia in the quarterfinal. Though the Dutch have a world ranking of two and Belgium is at four, the Red Lions don’t really care about that.
The prediction is Belgium will play the gold medal match and will stop the Argentines from creating a history in Olympic field hockey.
The players to watch will be the Belgian striker Tom Boon along with alongside midfield Arthur van Doren with the support of Floren Van Aubel, Tanguy Cosyns, Emmanuel Stockbroekx, Thomas Briels, Simon Gougnard and of course their skipper John-John Dohmen.
Go Red Lions. Roar on the podium with gold!