The next 96 years saw Belgium staying absent from the international podiums, including a painful ‘did not qualify’ tag from 1980 to 2004 Olympics. That’s when they decided to arrest the slide. But that is a separate story for another day
Hockey at the Olympics saw a change of tsunami proportions since Belgium’s 1920 bronze. India entered its hockey team at the Games for the first time in 1928 and turned the field into one-way traffic with gold in six successive editions. But India’s ‘golden’ harvest in hockey too hit a barren patch after 1980. That too, however, is a separate story.
A century since 1920, Belgium has achieved everything its master plan had begun to target sometime during the ’90s, and gained momentum in the late 2000s. They are the reigning world and Olympic champions and have been the European champions as well. This week, they are set out to achieve one silverware missing in their CV — the Junior World Cup (JWC).
In the 2016 JWC in Lucknow, when a raucous crowd bobbing in the Lucknow stands pushed the home team to go the distance, Belgium returned home with broken hearts, as India captain Harjeet Singh, coach Harendra Singh and their boys danced in the aisles.
In the next five years, times have changed in a way more than anyone expected. The JWC kept getting delayed; Harjeet, who was once considered the next Sardar Singh, went into oblivion; Harendra shifted from coaching India juniors to senior women, then men and currently the USA senior team. And on a disastrous note, the world saw a pandemic, and is still reeling in many ways under the threat of newer mutations of the Coronavirus.
One man who has survived this test of times is Jeroen Baart. The coach of Belgium juniors in 2016 is still at the helm of affairs for their junior team.
Baart faces a familiar foe in a familiar warzone, as his Belgium team will look to bury the demons of 2016 in the quarter final clash against India on Wednesday at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium.
“Both the countries have invested a lot in their hockey,” Baart told reporters ahead of the match. “Looking at Belgium, how they increased the budget and did things for the players, the next generation is a strong generation.
“For India, Hockey India League (HIL) was a massive boost for the sport in India. Unfortunately, it’s not been there for the last few years. Hopefully, it can come back, so (that) it can help these boys to perform better, for their rise to the top. Not just senior players but also players who are younger,” he added.
Baart hit the nail on the head. India reaped the benefits of HIL, which began in 2013, in the form of the JWC triumph in 2016. That crop of players, which played the five editions of HIL until 2017, helped India build and eventually return to the Olympic podium after 41 years in Tokyo with a bronze medal.
But the juniors of 2021 were largely an unknown lot to hockey fans, until the tournament began, which happened on a disappointing note for the hosts.
The shock loss against France shook the team, the reins of which were given to senior coach Graham Reid just before the JWC. They woke up in time to thrash Canada and Poland, and finished second in Pool B to reach the quarters.
(Photo credit: Hockey India Twitter)
A week into the tournament, players like Sanjay, Araijeet Singh Hundal and Uttam Singh have demanded attention with their skills. But coach Reid isn’t willing to read too much into that just yet, for the “real test” for the team will be later today.
“The real test comes tomorrow,” said Reid, talking to reporters at the Kalinga Stadium. “The team that can come out and play their natural game will be the winners.”
But it’s not going to be easy. The Under-21s can go from classy to reckless, and vice versa, in a matter of minutes. The scorelines of 13-1 and 8-2 against Canada and Poland, respectively, were emphatic. But the flurry of cards and suspensions against the Poles showed up the Indian players like schoolboys in blue uniforms.
“That’s one of the tough parts when you are coaching someone who is a bit younger,” said Reid. “Patience doesn’t come naturally to young boys. Kids of that age want things to happen. Trying to stay patient, move the ball around and be disciplined is something we try to instill in them… But there is a fine line between not disrupting their flow.”
In the same breath, Reid pointed at Belgium’s class and vulnerability as well.
“You see the DNA that comes down from their senior team, and the senior team is world No. 1…(But) You also saw some vulnerability, which the Malaysians exploited and we will look to do the same.”
Malaysia came close to upsetting the 2016 JWC runners-up, before holding them for a 1-1 draw. But the junior Red Lions still managed to finish on top of Pool A, ahead of Malaysia on goal difference.
That vulnerability of the Belgians further finds mention in the words of noted hockey journalist Jean Francois Jourdain.
“I am not sure they can be considered favourites facing India who have the home advantage and probably the fact that there is no real star player in the (Belgian) team. They will have to do (things) with collective effort,” said Jourdain, talking to TimesofIndia.com from Belgium.
“In the young Red Lions, you don’t have really star players. They are promising players, but most of them are trying to get a place in the Belgian Honour (top flight) division.
“I wouldn’t put too much money on Belgium,” he added.
That apart, India can’t ignore the class of strikers like Thibeau Stockbroekx. However, he is the only player in the Belgian squad with senior-team experience under his belt.
(Photo credit: Thibeau Stockbroekx Instagram)
“I think it’s going to be a great game…We have been analysing (India’s game). They are really good on the counter. They are playing in their own stadium and have a lot of passion in their game,” said Thibeau when contacted by TimesofIndia.com.
India’s battery of drag-flickers, especially Sanjay and Araijeet Singh Hundal, have exhibited fine scoring form — forcing opponents to be wary of India off penalty corners (PC). Belgium’s worries are along the same lines.
“We have trust in our goalkeepers and our PC defence team. We will do everything we can to stop them, but in the first place, we don’t want to give them any PCs, because I think it’s a weapon for them,” said Stockbroekx.
But India will miss the playmaking skills of their 2019 Youth Olympics star Maninder Singh, who has been ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury. Bobby Singh Dhami has been drafted into the squad as a replacement.
The tournament remains officially closed for spectators. A handful of invitees, school children and participating teams in the stands will bring some amount of cheer. But it will be nothing compared to 2016, when the roars from the Lucknow crowd almost shook Belgian legs.
“I think nobody in our team, except the coach, has been here (in India) before. It’s an amazing stadium. None of us have played in a stadium with 16,000 capacity,” said Stockbroekx, who incidentally has some unfinished business with India.
His elder brother, Gregory, was a member of the 2016 team that lost the final to India. His recurring pain echoes in the message he sent to Thibouis.
“This time India will not win. Do everything you can to beat them,” Gregory’s message to his brother read.
That, and the two teams’ re-emergence in world hockey, sets the narrative of this quarterfinal clash.