As far as years go, 2007 wasn’t particularly significant in the international men’s game. With no Olympics or World Cup, the Champions Trophy in Kuala Lumpur was the major prize. Germany won their ninth title with a tight 1-0 win over Australia in the final.
That same year, the men’s Champions Challenge, the event introduced by the FIH in 2001 to broaden international competition and act as a qualifying tournament for the Champions Trophy, was held in Antwerp.
Argentina won that tournament. And those with a knowledge of more recent results will be able to tell you that the South Americans progressed to a World Cup bronze medal in 2014 and Olympic gold in Rio.
Tellingly, this isn’t the most noteworthy fact to come from that week in Antwerp. One look at the bottom of the table and you’ll find Belgium in sixth and last place. Yes, Belgium, who won Rio silver and are now the current world champions, finished last in this second-tier event. Even with home advantage.
So, what happened in those 12 years to take Belgium from outside the top 10 to world No 1?
As Australian great Ric Charlesworth says, “if you want a good team, then you need good players”. Follow that logic and the reality is that if you want your team to be the best in the world then you are going to need at least some of your team in the very top group of international players. The rest should be playing as close to that level as possible.
For some teams, reaching that level may last for just a single tournament, or for just the generation of a special group of players. It is only the very top teams; Germany, Australia and the Netherlands in the men and the Dutch and Argentina in the women’s game, that have proved their production of players is good enough to be able to regenerate their teams without dropping out of the top tier.
Now, as we look at the men’s game since Rio, the signs are that Germany may be struggling to keep pace while Argentina also seem to be at a critical moment. Inconsistent results post-Rio including a poor World Cup result suggest the previous two Olympic champions are battling the process of regeneration as older players leave and younger players come in.
In comparison, Belgium are going from strength to strength. From Rio, their momentum has continued up to and beyond their World Cup win. Successive appearances in hockey’s “Grand Slam” tournaments is one thing, but to do that while your team and players are still getting better is another level all together.
As the very wise former Australian high performance director and now Irish Olympic Chef de Mission, Trish Heberle, always says, “success leaves clues” and it’s those all-important players that provide the most obvious explanation of Belgium’s rise to the top ranking.
Those familiar with the wonderful Euro Hockey League will know that the rise of the Belgian men’s game has coincided with their clubs and domestic competition looking more and more like the previously unique level of their Dutch neighbours.
But this is far more than just an issue of clubhouses, pitches and wealthy members. Go back through the careers of all these players and you’ll find that they’ve been guided by quality coaches right from their junior days. Be it former top-level domestic players, foreign import players and even foreign coaches, the Belgian clubs have done a remarkable job in ensuring their younger players have received an extraordinarily high level of tuition.
The southern hemisphere has featured prominently. And there is a long list of international and top domestic players from Australia, NZ and Argentina who have handsomely repaid Belgian hockey and their clubs.
Similarly, at elite level, Belgium has led the way in being willing to look outside their borders for knowledge and expertise to take their teams and players forward.
Senior coaches like Giles Bonet, Adam Commens, Colin Batch, Mark Lammers, Jerome Delmee and most recently, the All-Black like impressive triumvirate of Shane McLeod, Michel van den Heuvel and Craig Fulton have all played a part. Not just in getting Belgian clubs and the national team to where they are today, but also in providing the platform that ensures that they will be there tomorrow.
So what does this tell us? That foreign coaches are better than domestic ones? That clubs should be recruiting as many foreign internationals to their clubs and leagues as possible?
Perhaps, though, it’s better just to focus on Charlesworth’s prophetic words about the importance of good players.
Whether they are from Brussels, Brisbane or Buenos Aries, the simple fact is that the Belgium’s rise to the top in 12 or so years is clear proof of the impact on players that top-level coaching throughout junior and senior ranks can have.
But that impact is entirely dependent on clubs at either end of the equation. Without strong clubs, you simply won’t have the players to work with. There wouldn’t be the investment and infrastructure that can develop and also attract the sort of coaching talent that is so important in developing players.
And, more importantly, providing the next generation. One reason why Belgium look set to remain a global force for a long time yet.