The prediction had come three years early. The wait at the Oi Stadium felt like an eternity. After a dramatic shoot-out, Vincent Vanasch stood firm on a retake as Belgium men became Olympic hockey champions for the first time on Thursday.
In 2017, the then Belgium Hockey chief boldly stated that the Red Lions would win Euro, world and Olympic titles by 2024. One hundred and one years after Belgium last won a team Olympic gold in men’s football, Shane McLeod’s progressive, brilliant team beat Australia 3-2 in the first men’s shoot-out to decide the ultimate prize in the sport. The previous 60 minutes, where the sides finished locked at 1-1, had been a simply mesmerising, physical spectacle.
After Vanasch’s outstretched, probing stick had thwarted two Kookaburras, Jacob Whetton’s second take after a lengthy, agonising review – not even Tintin would have been able to unravel the various outcomes – was stopped by the Belgium No.1 to spark wild scenes as they danced to the goalkeeper’s own tune.
“It’s just that we train so much. I’m like a musician, it’s a rehearsal and then you come to the concert and it comes naturally,” a breathless Vanasch said. “That’s how I come on the pitch. I’m composed, but also I trust myself, I trust my reflexes and you can learn that from experience and that’s why today I did something like this.”
Belgium’s meteoric rise to the top has been one of the great modern day hockey stories. Now that they’ve added to a growing palmarès, this most complete of teams has the set, as McLeod ended his tenure as one of the most successful coaches of modern times. With six key players at 30 or over, the Paris cycle will likely see a squad shift. For now, they will be hailed as Belgium sporting greats.
In Tokyo, Alexander Hendricks has been the star of the Games with his outright power. In Thursday’s final, one of the tightest defensive displays of the Games, he barely got a look in following a tactical battle of minds.
From the off, both teams had defending mettle. Despite the quality, unerring moves and entertainment, circle entries came at a premium. The best move saw Arthur van Doren fizz into Sylvan Kina who forced an outstanding save from Andrew Charter, his right stick standing in the way of Belgium’s opener.
As if to underline the defensive duties of the world’s top two teams, the first PC chance came five minutes before the close of the second quarter.
Galloping runners charged down Hendrickx’s first as Tim Brand stood firm. The second offering from Hendrickx’s stick went wide.
The world champions kept pushing, a whipped flick into the circle finished by Van Aubel and past Charter. It came at the start of the third quarter, the final unrelenting.
To the start of the fourth and this time it was the Kookaburras to make hay. Flynn Ogilvie and Aran Zalewski forced their way through the Belgian backlines and Tom Wickham touched home.
The shoot-out came, Belgium having lost their two previous major finals against the green and gold, in the 2015 World League final and Pro League final two years ago.
Vanasch struck first when Blake Govers couldn’t convert. Ogilvie and Tim Brand, one of the other tournament standouts, then scored. Belgium, meanwhile, stole a match through Van Aubel and Arthur de Sloover. When Felix Denayer miscued, the final was still on a knife edge.
Back came Vanasch to outtouch Simmonds before a foul on Victor Wegnez left Hendricks to flick home from the stroke.
Whetton came next. He had to score. And as he went wide, a desperate shot hit the post. Then the review. Several minutes passed. The decision? An unintentional foul and retake. Vanasch wasn’t going to be denied a second time as the pride of Lions raced towards the drenched 33-year-old.
India had earlier won bronze after a thrilling 5-4 victory over Germany, their first Olympic medal in 41 years. Two mighty stories sparking the old and the new of the traditional game.