Tokyo Olympics 2020: In quest to regain lost glory, Indian hockey can take lessons from Belgium's rise
Can India draw insights or utilise the same blueprint from Belgium's extraordinary run to become World Champions, Olympic silver medallists and European Champions?
To break into European hockey elite, it took Belgium almost 16 years of perseverance, patience and a will that almost seems frightening.
Belgium's rise has been phenomenal given they had only played five of the 13 World Cups.
From Belgium's extraordinary run to become World Champions, Olympic silver medallists and European Champions, can India draw insights?
Belgium coach Shane McLeod believes that India has the ability to play at high speed and most teams cannot match that.
It's a new culling phase in field hockey. Belgium's win at the European Championships, without a doubt, the toughest of the continental championships, has shown that they are neither going to rest on their laurels (winning the 2018 World Cup) nor slow down. It was Belgium's first win, coming at the 17th European Championships. Germany have eight titles; the Dutch have five, Spain have two and England have won once. To break into this group has taken Belgium almost 16 years of perseverance, patience and a will that almost seems frightening.
It was in August 2017 that the President of the Royal Belgian Hockey Association and a former player with 358 international appearances, Marc Coudron, told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper: "By 2024, we will be, at least once, Champions of Europe, the World Champions and Olympic Champions." It wasn't a flippant statement. Coudron was elected in 2005 and for a man who has scripted Belgium's rise through the ranks step by step, he knew exactly what he was saying. If Belgium win gold at Tokyo, Coudron wouldn't at all be unhappy that his prediction came true four years ahead of schedule.
"I said that after we lost the European final in Holland," says Coudron. "We were 2-0 up at half time but Holland won 4-2 at the end. It was more of a conviction than a prediction. I knew and I still know that the Red Lions are very good. I also have enormous confidence in them, in the staff members, in their quality and their involvement. So yes, I was pretty sure that the Red Lions will finally get the gold medals in big tournaments. Now we already have the World Cup and the European Championships, we go now for the treble with the Olympic Games."
Belgium's rise has been phenomenal. They had never entered the last four of a World Championship. In fact, they had only played five of the 13 World Cups. In the 14th edition, they were World Champions.
In the Olympic Games, their record is slightly better. They won a bronze in 1920, finished fourth in '28 and ended up fifth in '48. After Montreal 1976, they failed to qualify for seven consecutive Olympic Games, resurfacing in 2008 where they finished ninth. In London, the Red Lions showed glimpses of a team that was restructuring itself by finishing fifth. And then in Rio, they won a silver.
The turning point was 2007 and it came from the stick of the man who would be captain in 2016 when Belgium would pick up an Olympic silver. Jerome Truyens scored the most important goal in Belgian hockey at Manchester during the European Championships. He deflected in a Maxime Luycx centre, with seven seconds remaining on the clock against Germany. It was Belgium's first victory over Germany in an official tournament. Truyen's goal ended Belgium's 32-year absence from the Olympic Games.
Unknown to many in the hockey world, who probably thought this was a one-off win, it paved the way for Belgium to wake up and build the structure that we see today. Truyens in an interview to Lalbire.be after Belgium won the European Championships said, "This stage (Euro 2007) was a turning point. I announced to the team that I would score such a goal. It was a very special moment. Adam Commens had just changed the way we see a match, he wanted us to attack a lot more, and our presence at the London Olympics four years later confirmed our ascent, and at the Rio Games, Shane McLeod revived the dynamic because we were in a hollow."
Can India draw insights or utilise the same blueprint from Belgium's extraordinary run to become World Champions, Olympic silver medallists and European Champions? Out of the top four since 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and the 1975 World Cup, both which India won, the road map to the top has been shown by a nation of 1.14 crore people. But might has little do with volume or size of the populace. What matters is the structuring, the vision behind Belgium’s rise as a hockey power. India aspires to be a power, once again. But without significant steps or a vision plan that creates a long-term strategy.
When Graham Reid came back after winning the Olympic Test event in Tokyo, he said, "As a coach, I'm always looking to improve the team and finding areas which need improvement, so we will be spending the next couple of weeks analysing all the footage we have from the Test event to work out what are the areas. But, the feeling at the moment is that we are working on our goal shooting, at defensive work, one-on-one tackling. I can see it is getting better. And corners always remain a focus for us."
India need to go beyond the immediate. The present group would always look into what is required to get results at the tournaments but those working behind the scenes need to focus on the decade ahead. India have lost enough time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics —where they did well — and the 2001 Junior World Cup which India won. It has often been seen that when things start coming together as a team and results start flowing, there is a sudden dip in form and it's back to the drawing board. Just before the World Cup, the team did well at the 2018 Champions Trophy reaching the final but errors at the Asian Games semi-final and then some contentious selections for the World Cup, and the chance was blown away. Too much hard work is frittered away by decisions that go beyond hockey.
V Bhaskaran, former Indian coach and captain of the side that last won an Olympic gold says, "It's not surprising that Belgium is the best team in the world at the moment. And the way they are going, they would consolidate and be in the top two for the next decade. The simple answer is to strengthen your domestic hockey for your team do well. Belgium has a fantastic league and they will keep producing players. I think even playing against their second team could be a big challenge."
Coudron credits the clubs, saying: "The clubs in Belgium are the basis of the success of Belgium hockey. It's a long tradition of cooperation between the clubs and the federation. The clubs create the best environment to help the development of those young boys and girls by providing good trainers and coaches. At a certain level, the best ones come into our regional selections at the age of 13 and 14 years old. And then this same pyramid goes on to the top of the Red Lions and the Red Panthers. The national players also play in the club competitions, improving the quality of the championships."
There was a time in the early eighties and even in the late 90s that Indian hockey stars played in the domestic league for their employers. Dhanraj Pillay played for Indian Airlines along with Ashish Ballal and AB Subbiah, who were India's two top goalkeepers. In fact, watching Airlines was like literally seeing the Indian national team and fans came in droves to the Nehru Cup semis and final to watch stars from Punjab Police, Railways and Air India.
"Do you realise that a decade or two decades ago, an Indian team would take time out to play teams like Punjab Police, Indian Airlines and the rest," says Bhaskaran. "Thousands came for those matches. The fans also got a close look at the players. They rooted for the club against the national team. That was the fun of hockey."
Now the stands are empty. Indian hockey stars live in the Sports Authority of India campus like some secret training camp and the fans who drive this sport watch them only on TV. Those lakhs of fans across Jalandhar, New Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Bhopal, Mumbai, Bangalore haven't seen any of the present players in the domestic tournaments and one doesn't have a clue whether the Hockey India League will make a comeback or not.
It was hard for Coudron to take over the administration of the Belgian hockey association when nothing seemed to be going right. "My first goal was to 'close the gap' with the top 10 of the world, in other words, to qualify for each World Cup and Olympic Games. We missed the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, but we did qualify for the 2008 Olympics. We also wanted to improve our level, not by developing one team for a specific target, but to develop a long-term strategy for hockey, for men and women's team across different age groups. The number of players in clubs has increased from 16,000 in 2005 to 50,000 this year, with more than 40 percent of that number being girls and women (that figure was less than 20 percent in 2005!)"
Belgian captain, Thomas Briels, knows what it takes to reach the top. "I think a lot of factors played a role in the climb of Belgian hockey," says Briels. "We had a lot of different coaches and the federation worked more professionally with coaches by giving them full-time employment. Shane McLeod was very important for our group. He made a team of stars into a star team. Getting all individuals working for each other as a unit, a family."
Jean Francois Jourdain, Sports Editor of the Lalibre.be has been following the Belgium team for almost two decades. He does admit that this is a golden generation of Belgium hockey players but also says that they are mentally indestructible.
"We can't deny that we have a golden generation with exceptional talents such as Vincent Vanasch, Arthur Van Doren, John-John Dohmen, Tom Boon and now Alexander Hendrickx," says Jourdain. "They learned from the past. They have a perfect balance between old and new, nobody too old nor too new. They are mentally indestructible. Remember how they concentrated back in Bhubaneswar when De Sloover was denied the winning shoot-out? If I can quote Manu Stockbroekx: 'We are all ready to give our life for this team.'"
Can India learn from the success of the Belgians? The man credited for the recent spate of success, coach Shane McLeod says, "I am not sure if we want India to learn anything or we will be in trouble next time we play them! India is a team that is improving. They have played very well against the Red Lions in the times that we have played. Where they sometimes have trouble is that the expectation for them to win tournaments is so high that it puts a lot of pressure on players and staff."
McLeod believes that India has the ability to play at high speed and most teams cannot match that. "Where they can still improve is to play a structure that allows them to play with the Indian attacking flair as well as being strong in their defensive structures."
India walking away from the first season of the FIH Pro-League raised eyebrows since Narinder Batra is the FIH President. There has been a mixed response with Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman saying it was a mistake on India's part to pull out of the tournament. Even Coudron agrees.
"I've spoken to many players and they consider the Pro-League as a big success, as they always play in front of full (or nearly full) and loud stands. This first experience was, from my part, a positive one. I'm sure it will become a big success, certainly with the entrance of India from 2020. And to be honest, I still do not understand why India withdrew from the first edition. It was an error, and I'm happy India is back."
With the air getting increasingly rarefied as more and more national teams try and break into the top four and six, India need to harness their potential by reaching a podium. It's a requirement at the moment. Coudron believes India may learn from Belgium like Belgium learnt from India.
"It's essential to keep improving, to analyse and learn new techniques and tactics being played by other countries. I'm not sure at all India has gone wrong. On the contrary, India is better and better for a few years now and is a real competitor at the top. And with the incredible fans in India, India will get other trophies in the future."
McLeod, in fact, makes a bold prediction for India. "Our team and coaching staff certainly do not underestimate India. I think they are not far away from a big result. If we play India in the final of the Olympics next year, it would not surprise me."
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