It is a perfect blend of art and science, with well-defined set of variables coming into play. The ability to hit the sweet spot and peak at the right moment is something every coach dreams of. Belgium seem to be living that dream at the moment, proving that they are masters when it comes to timing their arrival to perfection. England would concur.
On December 15, Belgium entered the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup final after drilling in half a dozen clinical goals to systematically take apart the English challenge. The 6-0 scoreline rendered a preliminary-round feel to the first semifinal of the day.
Belgium, who had a jittery start to the tournament against Canada (winning 2-1), followed by a draw against India, have gathered steam with every match since. South Africa… Pakistan… Germany... England, and the “Big Trophy,” said Belgium’s Nicolas de Kerpel, completing the sentence with the same nonchalance with which they reduced England to chasing shadows in the game.
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The nonchalance, however is deceptive. Behind the seemingly non-intimidating disposition of Belgian players lies the confidence that draws from the system they have put in place for long tournaments such as the World Cup or the Olympics. At the Rio Games in 2016, the Belgians hit form right from the start, but lost their final game in the preliminary stage, a game they tinkered and experimented in, with progress into the quarters guaranteed.
Then they hit peak form, beating India and the Netherlands en route final, and their maiden Olympic silver.
“We knew it’s almost a month long tournament here,” said De Kerpel. “We didn’t want to go all out right at the beginning. We wanted to gather momentum as we progress, try out things, get better, so that we are close to perfection in the knockouts. It is something we plan out. We came here to play right till the last day of the tournament.”
Belgium’s momentum is at its peak at the moment, judging by how they played against England — a mix of tactical brilliance and intelligent, efficient hockey left the Britishers wondering what hit them.
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The depth and character of this Belgian side is evident in how they overcame setbacks in Bhubaneswar. Just after the start of the tournament, Belgium were in a spot of bother, losing two key players — former FIH Player of the Year John-John Dohmen was out after not recovering in time from bronchitis, while Emmanuel Stockbroekx exited following an hamstring injury.
Their replacements were flown in — Augustin Meurmans for Dohmen and Antoine Kina for Stockbroekx. That’s when finishing second in the group stage behind India helped. They had an extra (crossover) match to play and “get things worked out”, before they launched the final push that has seen them reach the final.
“It was not easy losing two of our players early in the tournament,” said de Kerpel. “The replacements came in. But they would need time to get used to the conditions and the extra matches helped. We could blend them in into the team set-up and tactics, and here we are.”
And, between them and their maiden World Cup triumph stand India-killers the Netherlands, who brought out their ‘A’ game against Australia in the second semifinal to win in sudden death. The two sides were tied 2-2 in regulation time, and deadlocked 3-3 after five attempts of the shootout. The sixth attempts proved decisive, Jeroen Hertzberger scoring for the Dutch, then goalkeeper Pirmin Blaak saved the attempt from Daniel Beale. The Netherlands had sneaked past Australia in a high-quality match which could have swung either way.
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The Dutch never hit top gear against India in the quarterfinals. But they were peerless against the Aussies, especially in the first half. The gritty Kookaburras grinded things back to parity in the second half. A clash of different philosophies of hockey played out — grit and structure vs flair and pace — that earned the admiration of the mostly Indian, neutral crowd.
The Dutch journey, however, has not been a steady rise towards peak. They seem to have also gathered momentum — their loss against Germany at the start of the tournament is all but a distant memory now.
The Argentines went first. The Germans followed. And now the Australians have gone as well. For the first time in sixteen years the Men’s Hockey World Cup will see a new champion.
The two left standing to fight for the Cup are the sides who were almost beaten by India. Then again, there is no scope for “almost” in sport. But for storytelling, the ifs and buts that one get to hear walking past the local fans who came for the semis, sans the tricolour facepaints, provide telling hindsights.
Without India — who are yet to reign in and control the process of peaking for summit clashes — the evening began in gloom, as was expected.
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The barricaded lanes that zig zag towards the spectator gallery entrances of the stadium were devoid of the buzz even when the first semifinal was just a few minutes away. It seemed Bhubaneswar suddenly forgot there is a World Cup in town. The flow of fans into the stands, a torrent two days back, was a trickle now — the final two days tournament, it was clear, would have to live with the missing link, the high energy and emotion around the turf.
The emcee’s attempts to yank up the tempo for Saturday evening’s action, “Bhubaneswar, are you ready for the first semi final between England and Belgium,” was met with silence... the moment rescued by the DJ. If not for the music troupe, the Kalinga Stadium would have remained in a perpetual cryo freeze, the mood of the silenced crowd from India’s quarter final loss against the Netherlands hanging still over the turf as England and Belgium warmed-up.
The stands got busier as the evening wore on, and the high quality and well-contested second semifinal between Australia and the Netherlands did what the emcee failed earlier — whip up some semblance of a party mood in the stadium.
Hopefully, the final between Belgium and the Netherlands on Sunday will receive the atmosphere hockey’s premier summit clash deserves.
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