World Cup final. Penalty shootout. 2-2. Arthur de Sloover has to run, dodge, spin, do whatever it takes, to put the ball past the Netherlands ’keeper Pirmin Blaak in Belgium’s last chance. Some of his teammates crouch, their eyes on him. Some pray with eyes shut. Some pace up and down, jittered.
De Sloover runs, goes left, spins 180 degrees (with his back to the ‘keeper), spins again and manages to flick the ball in on the dive. The ball goes in. Before de Sloover could get up, his teammates rush towards him. An ecstatic red huddle is being formed on the dark blue pitch.
Then, something that’s never happened in the history of hockey happens. A World Cup triumph is stalled by a video referral. The Belgians hardly noticed the Netherlands ’keeper asking for one after de Sloover put the ball into the net. The replays show the ball striking de Sloover’s foot. The goal’s disallowed. The World Cup isn’t over yet.
Belgium’s coach, Shane McLeod, would later say about this moment: “I was thinking it was a sad joke.”
After winning an Olympic bronze medal in 1920, Belgian hockey has waited for 98 years to win its first-ever gold medal in Olympics or World Cup. The wait, now, has to prolong.
For many years, Belgium was a second-class team in world hockey. Their 1920 Olympic bronze medal seemed like an aberration. A victory against them was taken for granted. A defeat to them was a matter of shame. They celebrated the rare upsets. But Belgian hockey, it seemed, was destined to float in the muck of mediocrity.
Then, in mid-2005, Belgium decided to change. At this point, Belgium had missed participating in the previous seven Olympics. They had finished 14th in the previous World Cup. They were ranked 14th in the world.
The Belgium Olympic Committee then asked Dutchman Bert Wentink to take charge as the technical director of the Royal Belgian Hockey Federation (KBHB).
Within a few months of his appointment, Belgium’s rank improved to 12. Then next year, it came down to 13. But Wentink wasn’t there to produce instant results.
To reorganize the structure of Belgian hockey, he and the Belgium Olympic Committee came up with a long-term plan – ‘Be Gold’. It was devised for Belgium to build a team to win a gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was devised before Rio de Janeiro got to know that it will host the Olympics.
And, under coach Shane McLeod, Belgium scripted history in the Brazilian capital when they won an Olympic medal (a silver) after 96 years.
But, as McLeod admitted, it was a work of a lot of people. “A lot of money has been invested in the youth programmes,” he said. “They work very hard to have good coaching staff in the U-16, U-18, U-21 categories. They produce young athletes like (captain Thomas Briels). Also, this is a talented generation. The youngsters are adding to the strength of our squad.”
Two years after Weitnik’s appointment, the Red Lions qualified, after finishing third in the European championship, for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The team, there, finished ninth. It didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup but in the next Olympics in London, it finished fifth. Brick by brick, Belgium hockey was building its castle.
Belgium were now four years away from realizing their monumental vision. To help, they got the stalwart Dutch coach Toon Siepman to oversee the team. Two years later, another Dutchman, Marc Lammers, replaced him. He led Belgium in 2013 to a first-ever silver medal in the European Championships. A year later, Belgium finished fifth in the World Cup at The Hague.
Assistant coach Jeroen Delmee was at the helm till the onset of the Rio Olympics, when Belgium appointed McLeod, who oversaw a bunch of twenty somethings pull off the biggest achievement in the history of their country’s hockey.
Still, a gold medal was missing.
Belgium haven’t lost in the ongoing World Cup. Except the draw against India, it’s been a smooth ride for them.
“We have been training hard for the last two or three weeks. It will be a shame if we let it go tomorrow,” coach McLeod had said on the final’s eve.
Simon Gougnard’s playing the final despite hearing the news of his father’s demise, two days ago. He wants to win the World Cup for his team. His father had wanted him to. His teammates want to win it for him. There’s an intense sentiment riding on Belgium’s World Cup success.
Sudden death. Florent van Aubel runs, dodges, spins, does whatever it takes to put the ball past the Netherlands ‘keeper Pirmin Blaak to keep Belgium in the hunt.
Next, Belgium ‘keeper Vincent Vanasch rushes, reverses, dives, tricks, does whatever it takes to prevent Jeroen Hertzberger from putting the ball into the net.
Belgium’s 98-year-old wait had ended.