The rise of Belgium Hockey from fighting for funds to winning World Cup, Olympics
The Bridge decodes how the 2023 Hockey World Cup favourites Belgium emerged as a powerhouse in the sport and how they sustain it.
Today the Belgium hockey team is considered the best men's team in the world. The 2018 World Cup and the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are a testament of their dominance in world hockey.
The Bridge spoke to Denis Van Damme, Communications Manager of the Royal Belgian Hockey Association to understand how things changed for Belgium hockey.
How did Belgium succeed in getting past European hockey giants like Netherlands and Germany and steal the limelight in men's hockey?
Performance in last 5 years
Champions (2019), Runner-up (2017)
"There are many people, players, and clubs who had a role in the success of Belgium hockey," begins Denis.
"However, we can narrow it down to two people who had the most impact - Marc Coudron and Bert Wentink," he adds.
A banker by profession, Marc Coudron loved his hockey. Before retiring from international hockey, he had played more than 350 games for the Belgium hockey team.
Due to his long association with the game, Marc knew what Belgium hockey needed. He had a vision of creating a strong high-performance program for the team, which was backed by an equally strong grassroots and club hockey program.
Just after Marc Coudron filed his nomination for the post of the Belgium Hockey President, he conducted a study along with a professor from Université Catholique de Louvain to understand where Belgium Hockey stood as an organization.
"The key outcome of the study was that we need to have professionals in the federation to run the sport," says Denis.
Once elected, things started to change in the federation.
"That's when Marc hired Bert Wentink as Technical Director," Denis adds.
The duo of Marc and Bert worked together to change the shape of hockey in Belgium.
"The most important step, in my opinion, was developing a grassroots program to aid in the development of hockey in Belgium," says Denis talking about how Belgium managed to produce some good talents.
"In the beginning, the federation reached out to all the clubs across Belgium to get information on the top 12-year-old players, playing for the club. Belgium back then had a provincial system and we reached out to clubs in all 9 provinces of Belgium," he added.
The Royal Belgium Hockey Association then conducted training camps across these provinces to find the best players for provincial competition.
"That is when we started getting players, we would then invite these players to train with the federation and we have the results today - Champions of the world," chimes Denis.
The biggest problem that hockey faces today is funding. South Africa had to crowd-fund their Olympics campaign, Wales hockey team is doing the same for the 2023 Hockey World Cup.
Just like every other country in the world, Belgium too faced this challenge.
"The federation had to compete with the likes of football and cycling to secure funding to develop the game. When I was hired, I was also in charge of securing funds for hockey. It was difficult in the early days, but with hard work that players put in and a bit of luck we started getting government funding," Dennis explains.
"The catalyst was the qualification for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We had finished third in Euro Hockey Championships, exceeding all expectations and that's when the government of Belgium realized the potential of hockey," he added.
These funds were then used to develop club and provincial hockey in the country - the benefits of which they are currently reaping.
Technical Director Bert Wentink played an instrumental role in securing funding for the federation too.
"Bert used his Dutch charm to ensure that Belgium's politicians saw hockey's potential and funded the sport," Denis chuckles.
Sustaining the good work
From the change in working of Belgium hockey to the grassroots development and teams global success, getting funded - the Red Lions have ticked all the right boxes over the past few years.
But, how have they managed to sustain this good work and ensure they grow more and more competitive?
"We employ what we call a virtuous circle approach. The team doing well ensures that we can secure funds, which then allows us to put more money into grassroots development. These are all linked to each other and if this circle continues, we will continue to do well in hockey," Denis describes.
While it was Bert Wentink and Marc Coudron who started this revolution in Belgium hockey, the contributions of their coaches - Adam Commens and Colin Batch from Australia, Marc Lammers, and Jeroen Delmee from Netherlands cannot be forgotten.
Today as a result, Belgium's style of hockey is a mixture of the European technical style and the Australian physical hockey. They studied the best in the world and adapted them to develop their own style of play, which has in turn helped become a force to reckon with in the sport.
So what does Denis Van Damme expect from the Belgium hockey team in the 2023 World Cup?
"We did not start well in the Pro League and but then with the last couple of games we have seen glimpses of brilliance from the team. The players are sweating out hard in the Belgian winter and they are determined to get another World Cup for the nation," he concluded.