In the next two years, the Belgian men’s ice hockey team could enter the pantheon of sporting legends. Of course, one could argue that they are already there. They are the defending Olympic and world champions, after all. Many countries have achieved the feat of winning olympic and world hockey gold in two years, but what about winning the olympics back to back and World Cup? Well, that is something that has never been achieved before. Add to that a possible European title and you’ll go from history to legend.
Belgium is on such an expedition. The Red Lions are currently in the process of defending their world title at the FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India, where they won world gold for the first time four years ago. After two matches (a 5-0 win over the Republic of Korea and a 2-2 draw against European silver medalists Germany), Belgium tops Group B and is well positioned to advance to the knockout stage.
The evolution of Belgian hockey
Belgium’s journey from hockey hurdle to world power dates back to the early 2000s, when the Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA) began increasing investment in youth programs and modernizing its structures.
Alexander Hendrickx, who topped the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games scorers list with 14 goals en route to Belgium’s gold medal, spoke to Olympics.com about the impact of the RBHA changes on the national team.
“We were all amateurs at first. We didn’t train much, maybe once or twice a week because we also had to work full time. But then we started training six to seven times a week and transitioned to full-time hockey pros. I think it was one of the biggest changes [to becoming one of the best teams in the world]”.
The Red Lions return to the Olympic Games
Hendrickx is not wrong. In 2007, Belgium won a bronze medal at the European Championships (their first medal at the event) and qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, marking their return to the Games for the first time in 32 years.
Although the Red Lions did not win a medal in Beijing (finishing ninth), they won a silver medal at the 2013 European Championships and three years later won another silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics after losing 4–2 to Argentina in gold. medal match.
BEL v ARG, Men’s Hockey Golden Match | Replays from Rio 2016
In 2018, a year after finishing second at the European Championships, Belgium entered its current golden era, winning its first gold medals at the World Cup (2018), European Championship (2019) and Olympic Games (beating Australia 1-1 (3- 2) in the thrilling penalty shootout for Tokyo 2020 in 2021).
The success of the Red Lions on the international hockey scene resulted in a huge increase in the popularity of the sport in Belgium; so much so that the attitude towards hockey, according to Hendrickx, has completely changed.
“In the past, there was a perception in Belgium that hockey was an elitist sport,” says the 29-year-old. “Today, it’s a more mainstream sport that everyone enjoys playing.”
Goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch, who made three saves in the Tokyo 2020 gold medal match, adds: “Over the years we have seen us grow and people watch hockey, and not only the men’s team, but also the women’s team. In 2005 we had about 10,000 members – today we have 65,000.”
AUS v BEL – Men’s Gold Medal Match – Hockey | Tokyo 2020 replays
“We’re trying to develop hockey, and the growth of the sport in Belgium is huge,” says Hendrickx. – We are glad that we contributed to this.
I’m aiming for hockey gold in Paris 2024
While Hendrickx, Vanasch and the rest of the Red Lions were proud to help raise the profile of hockey in Belgium, they could also make history by becoming the first nation to simultaneously win two gold medals at the World Championships and the Olympic Games.
“Why not?” says Vanasch, when asked about the prospect of winning gold in India and at the 2024 Paris Olympics. “It will be a challenge, it will be difficult, but with this generation we can achieve anything.
“[Winning gold at Tokyo 2020] was a historic moment for a small country like Belgium, but I think when it comes to hockey, we can say we are a big country.”
Belgium will face Japan in the final group match on Friday 20 January at 5pm. A win guarantees them advancement to the knockout stage.