Rogier van 't Hek cannot help but chuckle as he remembers the hand-made banner that his friends left at the stadium of FC Utrecht during the 1998 Hockey World Cup.
'Hekkie in de basis' it read. Hekkie in the national team.
Van 't Hek didn't get a lot of game time at the tournament, but the national team, which had the likes of Stephan Veen and Teun de Nooijer, went on to lift the title.
"Before our first match against Canada, which was also the first game of the tournament, we walked on to the pitch like footballers. There was nobody in the stands, but I remember that banner my friends left in the stands. We all laughed about it later," says van 't Hek, who is currently in India covering the 2018 World Cup as a journalist for NRC Media.
It has been two decades since that momentous victory, yet some memories still swirl at the top of his mind.
"The thing I remember from that tournament was the party we had afterwards to celebrate our win. The stadium had some 15,000 people to watch the game, which was unprecedented for a hockey game at the time. We had a big tent next to the stadium itself to celebrate the victory. In fact, that was the first time that the players crowd-surfed after the win. Since then it has become a regular thing," he says.
Surprisingly, the Dutch didn't have a smooth journey to the title. They lost 1-5 to Germany in one of their first group games. This led to players like Jacques Brinkman and Ronald Jansen to lampoon the coach Roelant Oltmans and his tactics publicly in the media.
"Some players criticised the mentality of the team and our tactics right after the defeat to Germany. Roelant called a team meeting then to clear the air. He told all of us that we are a team so we need to pull together if we are to have any chance of winning the World Cup.
"That was the remarkable thing about that team. We were 16 players who were not friends but were united by the goal of becoming World Champions. So we still pulled together."
Other memories that stick out for him are the tomahawk goal that de Nooijer hit from the edge of the D on the left to the top-right corner and their win in the final over Spain.
"That was a great final. We were a goal down in the first half, and by the second we were trailing 0-2. There was a lot of tension building up," says van 't Hek, who has admitted in the past to having had the best seat in the house for that game.
"And that's when the players stood up! Veen scored to take us a goal close. And when we equalised and went to extra-time, everyone was sure we would win. It was primarily because the Spanish team had lost their best player (Juan) Escarre due to a hamstring injury. Sure, you can say we got lucky. But that's how sport is."
Probably, no one is better-placed to understand the vagaries of sport than van 't Hek. If he had played in the current team, he would have gotten significantly more game time due to the rolling substitutions rule, which was active even during the 1998 edition.
"But it was a new rule at the time. So not a lot of teams and coaches were very comfortable with the rule. So many teams only used it for drag-flicks. It used to be funny: a drag-flicker would go in when his team had earned a PC, he would score, celebrate while running back to be substituted!"
20 years since those heady days at Utrecht, the Dutch are still chasing a World Cup title.
Ask van 't Hek how the game has changed since his time, and he says: "The pace of the sport has become incredibly fast over the years. Even Roelant Oltmans (who coached the Netherlands to the title in 1998 and has since coached India, Pakistan and Malaysia) said that it had become a 'power sport'. It is all about fitness and it is all about running. Back in our days, it was a more technical sport.
"But, of course, if you have 18 players and you have the option of rotating them all the time with constant substitutions you could have also get that back in our days," he added.
Ask him why the Netherlands has not won the Hockey World Cup since 1998 and he says, "If I knew the answer, I would have been an administrator in the Netherlands federation."
Eventually, he says that while a lot of money came into clubs in the Netherlands since his playing days, the players were still training like amateurs until a few years ago while being paid as professionals.
"When I quit the sport, I was training three times a week with my club. A few years later, even when clubs in the Netherlands started paying much better, players were still training three times a week," he said.
He adds: "Back in those days, maybe there were five favourites to win any world title. Right now there are six. Besides if you look at teams like India, you see that they are training all year round. What also happened since 1998 was that Australia and Germany produced much better teams. They had a good generation of players."
And what about this current generation of Dutch players at the World Cup?
"I would say they are two generations: we have six players who are maybe over 30 while a few players are around 20. But both of those generations have a good bunch of players."
He adds that should Netherlands win, it would be a great boost for the grassroots game.
“Netherlands requires this victory has it might popularise the game in the men's side. The women's team right now is very popular in the country as they have been winning so much. More girls play the sport than boys in the Netherlands. Should the men's team win, that will change.”
Will there be a big celebration back home should Netherlands win the title?
"Not as big as back in our days. There will be a lot of people to receive us at (Amsterdam Airport) Schiphol and a lot of interest in the media," says van 't Hek, before adding, "but there won't be any crowd-surfing."
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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2018 08:06 AM