The Belgian hockey team has a very special relationship with the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. It was here, on December 16 2018, that the ‘Red Lions’ claimed their maiden World Cup title by beating the Netherlands in a penalty shootout. The Thomas Briels-led side has returned to the site of their triumph, this time for the FIH Pro League, and will face hosts India in two back-to-back matches over the weekend. “It’s really cool to be back, a crazy feeling,” said Belgium captain Briels. “It’s been a bit longer than a year when we had one of the best moments for not just hockey, but Belgian sports history. Looking forward to reliving the memories.”
The world champions are close to invincible at the Kalinga Stadium, having lost only two out of 15 matches. But India can take heart; both those losses were inflicted by them, in the Champions Trophy in 2014 and at the 2017 World League Final.
Belgium though have been on an upward curve; after a silver at Rio 2016 they showcased their best ever outing at the 2018 World Cup. That spurred them to clinch the 2019 EuroHockey Nations Championship—their first title in 17 editions. They also finished second in last year’s Pro League and recently displaced Australia as the world No.1.
“Our biggest strength is the team. We defend and attack together, that’s our biggest point, that’s why we won the World and European Cup,” said Arthur van Doren, who was the FIH Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018 and also the Player of the Tournament at the 2018 World Cup. The Red Lions have started 2020 in emphatic fashion too. They outpaced and outplayed defending Pro League champions Australia in both matches in their own backyard in the last week of January. The world No.1 team then hammered New Zealand in two games to pocket 11 out of a possible 12 points from their first four Pro League ties and now sit pretty on top of the standings.
“We are in good shape. The guys had a lot of training (in Australia) and are really fit. You could see that during the games. It’s going to be interesting against India who look really sharp. Both teams look good. It’s going to be close,” said Briels.
India too have started well in their debut Pro League. Up against the mighty Dutch, the world No.5 defeated the 2018 World Cup runners-up emphatically, including a sensational come-from-behind victory in the second and final game to pocket five out of a possible six points from their first two games.
“I was quite impressed with how India played. They showed heat, especially in the first game, playing it really well,” said Belgium coach Shane McLeod, referring to India’s 5-2 win against world No.3 Netherlands. “The second game was a lot more even. India have made some steps (forward) since the last time we saw them. I saw the basic skill was quite high. They seemed to understand the game structure well and the general level of the side was good.”
Belgium, like Netherlands, are known for their strong midfield players, who don’t just create chances upfront but also double back as the first line of defense.
“But India was able to match that (against Netherlands). We have to make sure that we keep on top of the guys but they will certainly be challenged by the individual skills of the Indians,” said McLeod.
India have played quite a few matches against Belgium at the Kalinga Stadium, the last one being in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup which ended in a 2-2 draw, making India the only team Belgium couldn’t beat in the quadrennial event.
“You have to be really sharp and be ready for counters because that’s what they (India) are known for and are good at,” said defender van Doren.
While India have been training in regular camps with short breaks, Belgium just came out of a month long Christmas holiday. Despite the lack of training or match practice, they were still able to inflict two back-to-back losses on world No.2 Australia.
“We trained together non-stop for nine months early in 2019. We started training after New Year and are building from there. The good thing is we know each other so well that the game comes back automatically,” said defender van Doren.
Asked about India’s strengths and weaknesses, Briels said, “We saw the Dutch having trouble against India, who were creating a lot of chances. Tactically their defence is quite strong. They are always deadly on counterattacks. Also, it’s a team which has been playing with each other for a long time like Belgium. They can get penalty corners for which they have really good drag-flickers.
“They are also good in touching the ball in the circle. In defence, the structure is getting better every year and it’s difficult to score a lot of goals against them. We always have difficulties and it’s always a close game against them. I expect it to be the same,” added Briels.
McLeod, who guided Belgium to a silver at Rio 2016, is now hoping to go one better in Tokyo. “For us the pinnacle is Tokyo,” he said. “We are using the Pro League to build our game. It helps us see what other nations are doing, how are they placed, what dangers we might face at the Olympics.”
McLeod also knows India chief coach Graham Reid quite well with both having coached in the European club system. “In some ways he (Reid) has brought back what Indians are renowned for—strikers playing with freedom, they are aggressive and pressing a lot more,” Mcleod said. “The depth of the squad is also better than it has been for a while.”