The email came through from the city of Brussels on Marc Coudron’s phone shortly after Belgium’s first world title victory in Bhubaneswar. Officials were keen on staging a trophy presentation the day the team landed back in Belgium. Coudron, president of Hockey Belgium, was still emotional, yet a sense of realisation struck the former Red Lion.
“I thought ‘we’re not football, Eddy Merckx or Justine Henin, we are just hockey!” Coudron says of previous sporting presentations at the city’s famous Grand Place. “I thought it would be a disaster and no one would be there. But they said they would do it and it would be wonderful.”
A UNITED BELGIUM
The stage for what was to come had been set on the Monday evening, with Belgium’s lead channel devoting one hour to hockey. The players arrived back at Brussels airport at 6:30am the following morning where family and friends were reunited for an emotional hour, most notably for Simon Gougnard, whose father had passed away during the tournament.
A reception with the King and Queen followed before a mid-morning press conference at City Hall. There was still an hour to go before the parade and only tourists had filled the square. But the atmosphere soon changed, the players emerging on the first floor balcony to the exultation of around 6,000 frenzied Belgians in Grand Place. “Never in my life could I have imagined this,” says Coudron. “Speaking of it now I am still feeling it. The emotions were intense that day.”
The Red Devils had been presented to the masses the previous summer after finishing third at the 2018 soccer World Cup. But this sunny December day was a breakthrough moment achieved by the Red Lions, the first time that a Belgium team had won a sporting world title. “If we had won the 2008 Olympics it would have been a total surprise. We were ninth there, fifth in London and second in Rio. Twice second in European Cups, this evolution had already started,” states Coudron.
The Belgium public also had a storyline to follow. “Everyone now knows what a good sport hockey is. It wasn’t just families [in Grand Place], it was all Belgium citizens and not only hockey fans,” adds Coudron.
A NATION RISES
During Coudron’s own playing career, Belgium were ranked 11th and had finished fourth twice at the Euros. Coudron’s predecessor had decided in 1999 to then put resources into the under-16 team. The association began with a team of 30 young 12-year-olds and to give them every chance of succeeding at the top. Four years later, their objective was underpinned at the European under-16 Championships where the likes of John-John Dohmen and Thomas Briels lifted the trophy in 2004.
A year later, Coudron started his first term as president. Finances were in good health and his aims were to improve all levels of hockey. It started at the top and the man credited for the architectural overhaul is Dutchman Bert Wentink, Belgium’s former technical director.
The association’s first step was “closing the gap”. While the senior side came ninth in Beijing, the under-18 team became European junior champions and defended the title in 2011, the two sides making up a clear majority of the current World Cup-winning side. In 2012, trophies kept coming with the European under-21 title. “The objective was to put these players in a cocoon and to put them in the best conditions to play at the highest level,” says Coudron.
The second objective was “to keep the flame burning” until London 2012. With the men finishing fifth, London also saw the women’s side qualify for the first time. Coudron calls this moment his “best souvenir” prior to the Grand Place emotions.
THE BIG PUSH
Then came “push to the podium”. Coudron says: “We said it because we were the best European junior side at the time and now was the chance to go on to the medal.” Aspirations came to fruition in 2013 when Belgium men came second in the European Cup. That has since been usurped by Rio silver and the tag of favourites for the 2019 Euros.
The current step, implemented after Rio 2016, has been billed as “all together at the top”, an all-encompassing plan involving the elite, domestic clubs, media, stakeholders, the national lottery and sponsors, as well as Flemish and French-speaking committees within Belgium. This period saw Belgium reach the men’s Euro final, become world champions and lift the EHL title after Waterloo Ducks, the first Belgium side to do so.
It has been some rise. Coudron, 50 at the end of the year, finishes his final presidential term in 2021 after 16 years at the helm. Given the national team’s success, the federation is also looking for a national stadium in Brussels with a 5,000 capacity. It would be one of the final projects to fulfill under Coudron’s watch, his in-tray also waiting upon seeing the Red Panthers begin their trophy hunt and the Red Lions add European and Olympic gold to the world title. The predictions may be bold, but ones that are increasing likely to turn to gold.
This article is an edited extract from our August print edition