Belgium’s incredible run of Olympic silver medal (in 2016) and World Cup gold would astound a perfunctory observer of international hockey. For, this was a team, till these back-to-back medals, that never finished on any podium after clinching an Olympic bronze medal in 1920. So, its last two major triumphs might seem like an awakening after an almost century-long hibernation or, perhaps, a miracle.
Belgium’s recent achievements, no doubt, evoke wonder. And 2016 will probably be marked as an year of renaissance in Belgian hockey. But ask the players of the World Cup winning squad in Bhubaneswar and their coach; they would insist that Belgium’s success is neither sudden nor transient.
The journey to 2016 and 2018 began in 2005 when the Belgium Olympic Committee and the Royal Belgian Hockey Federation devised ‘Be Gold’, a plan to succeed in an Olympics that was still 11 years away.
“It’s a work of a lot of people,” says Belgium’s coach Shane McLeod. “A lot of money has been invested in the youth programmes. They work very hard to have good coaching staff in the U-16, U-18, U-21 categories. They produce young athletes like Thomas Briels (the Belgian skipper). Also, this is a talented generation. The youngsters are adding to the strength of our squad. It’s not a one-off thing. You should see Belgium performing well for the next 4-10 years.”
Lack of domestic structure
Indian hockey’s story is somewhat similar to Belgium’s. With eight Olympic gold medals (three before independence) and a World Cup crown in 1975, India’s hockey legacy is far richer than Belgium’s. But it hasn’t won a major global event since Vasudevan Baskaran and company clinched the gold medal at 1980 Moscow Olympics.
“There is no one reason for this,” says former Indian captain Viren Rasquinha. “If we can improve our physical strength, mental strength, junior-level training and a lot of other things by one percent, it all adds up.
“Realistically, we are a notch lower than the top-4 teams in the world. When we have a good day, we can beat the best of teams. But the key thing is to beat them when we don’t have a good day,” he adds.
Indian hockey’s been working for decades to revive its lost glory but the efforts are fractured and haphazard.
Lack of a streamlined domestic structures, according to hockey historian K Arumugam, is a significant factor in the decline of the sport in India.
“All Western European countries have a strong domestic structure,” he says. “Unlike in India, they systematically select their elite players. The players usually play there for recreation and passion and those who excel are taken into the elite level.”
This, of course, seems simple. But it isn’t in India. Because India has 100 times the population of Belgium and a varied culture and it is difficult – but not impossible – to have a uniform domestic league.
“Every country has a different structure, different systems of playing, different culture. But the aim and ambition of every hockey player has to be the same and has to be streamlined accordingly,” says former Indian player and coach Jagbir Singh.
Need for coaches
One of Belgium hockey’s biggest reasons for success is its focus on young talent. Two national training centres – in Braxgata and Brussels – were set up with a ‘High Potential’ programme to identify extraordinary talents. Tom Boon and Florent van Aubel, part of Belgium’s World Cup-winning team, were identified through this programme.
According to Jagbir, Indian hockey, too, is rich in young talent.
“India has won the junior Asia Cup. We are the junior World Cup champions. The junior programme is very much in place,” he says. “It’s not that the youth aren’t taking part in hockey. It’s how well we have been able to utilise them.”
Belgium had or exported top-level coaches to identify talented youngsters and develop them into international players. India, according to Rasquinha, need to create such a pool of high-quality coaches. “At the moment, we don’t have good programs to train coaches,” he says.
Rasquinha, Jagbir and Arumugam concur that Indian hockey’s improving but lacks a long term vision.
“They are selecting a core group of 30-40 players, getting them into their best physical condition, giving them physical training experts, scientific input and other things. It’ll take its own time – but who’s willing to give time?” asks Arumugam.
Indian hockey’s been adamant on instant results. Its frequent change of coaches and players is an evidence of its impatience.
“First and foremost, you need to have a long-term vision and a clear goal in front of you,” says Jagbir. “The other thing is when you have too many players, you don’t value it. This has been the problem with Indian hockey. We would be the country with maximum number of hockey players and maximum replacements made in the team. Ultimately, what counts is experience, exposure and efficiency, which come only with time. I hear about a long-term vision during discussions. But when I see frequent changes in the team I have my doubts.”
Belgian hockey didn’t just plan for an event, it wanted to establish an era of glory. And, this is something that Indian hockey can learn from.