Shane McLeod
Inframe : Shane McLeod / Photo Credits : Getty Images

Belgium men’s hockey team are standing on top of the world, quite literally, as they have knocked Australia and Argentina down the FIH Hero World Rankings to take the number one spot.

The Red Lion’s stunning victory at the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup was the perfect end to 2018 for Head Coach Shane McLeod and his team of players and coaches. It puts the squad in a great frame of mind as they turn their thoughts to the next challenge, the FIH Pro League.

The campaign for the new World Champions begins on 19 January against Spain at the Estadio Betero, Valencia and is the opening fixture of the inaugural competition. Following that, the Red Lions then head south to tackle Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.

The question everyone outside of Belgium is asking is, how did they get so good?

The answer, it seems lies in a perfect triad of clubs, planning and pathways. Support for the national team starts at the top and filters through all levels.

“The Belgian National Olympic Committee chose hockey as its flagship team sport,” explains Mcleod. “And we also have a very proactive federation. They are working hard to enrich the domestic competition, which is the breeding ground for our elite players.”

How this support has translated into success is best demonstrated by the fact that every member of the gold medal-winning squad went through the national Be-Gold development initiative.

High Performance Director Adam Commens adds his own insight: “I think the growth of Belgium hockey has been well documented, but probably only from the inside do you get a true idea about why the programmes have been successful. While there are obvious strategic initiatives that have been put in place, Belgium has numerous unique characteristics that have assisted our development.

“The ability to train our national junior teams on a weekly basis from the age of 14 is something that larger countries simply cannot do, due to their size. It’s an example of how having a small country can be an advantage.

“And as with any successful sporting organisation, the coaching and development pathway of the players and coaches is a well researched and thought out process.”

The coaching staff has an intentional international feel to it. Commens is Australian, McLeod a New Zealander, Craig Fulton, who has recently joined the staff, is South African. There are coaches from the Netherlands, England, Argentina, Chile, Belarus and Belgium itself. This in itself is unique, says Commens and “embraces diversity while capturing the world game.”

And then there is the influence of the domestic game. “The clubs are the basis of all that we do,” says Commens. “Without them we do not have players for our High Performance programmes. They are the foundation of our success and as they grow, so to does the talent pool of athletes we choose from.

“In 2007, we had 20,000 members within the Belgian Hockey Federation. Now, 11 years later we have almost reached 50,000 members. It’s astonishing growth that the clubs have been able to absorb, all the while working hard to improve the infrastructure for those members. It really is remarkable how the sport has grown, and how the clubs have evolved in the last 10 years.”

While the saying goes: “success breeds success”, for McLeod the challenge will be how to “win as winners”.

“This is new territory for us and will create new challenges. We need to be careful that we continue to train like we want to get to number one rather than being happy at where we are. We know that teams watch our players and our game so we have to work hard to key any advantages that we have.”

Belgium’s attempt to stay on top of the world begins on 19 January with their FIH Pro League encounter with European rivals Spain.