'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the women's national team of Belgium.
Welcome to the ball, Cinderella. Weighing in at #16 in the FIH World Ranking, the Belgium women are the lowest-ranked team in the women’s Olympic tournament and the biggest surprise to be in London. It will be Belgium’s first appearance at an Olympics – making them the only team with no prior five ring circus experience. Belgium’s last two FIH tournaments were both winners for the small European nation. Last summer, they won the Champions Challenge 2, earning the right to move up to the next-highest tier. That victory was followed up by the unlikely home-field victory at the Olympic Qualifier in Kontich.
The Road to London:
Belgium entered its Olympic Qualification tournament as the third-seeded team and with history against them. Never had a women’s top-seeded team fail to advance to the Olympics in a qualifier. But the demise of the top-ranked Spanish team and the par performance of the Irish paved the way for Belgium to make history and win the event. Belgium beat Spain 1-0 early in the tournament and never looked back, topping Ireland in a convincing 4-1 win in the final.
Players to Watch:
Jill Boon and Stephanie de Groof will provide the one-two punch on offense for Belgium. Boon is known for her strong and quick attack from the field, while de Groof is the penalty corner specialist for the team. As a fun fact, Boon’s brother Tom will be in action for the Belgium men’s side, the only brother-sister duo at this Olympic hockey tournament. ‘Players to watch’ would not be complete without mentioning the player that won’t be watched, Sofie Gierts. Just a few weeks after Gierts powered Belgium through to the Olympics with three goals in the qualifier final against Ireland, it was announced that she would not be on the London squad. Obviously this leaves Belgium with a gaping hole, but one that gives the budding forwards a chance to fill.
Pascal Kina has come full circle within the Belgium hockey program. Kina was the assistant coach for the men’s national team until 2007 when the entire coaching staff was replaced after a last-place finish at the Champions Challenge. His replacement was Adam Commens, who has since moved onto head to Australian women’s team, making for an interesting side story come Games time if the teams meet. Kina moved over to the women’s program where he has enjoyed much success, including the surprise Olympic qualification and the Champions Challenge 2 win last summer. Most recently, Kina was named Belgium’s 2012 coach of the year in June.
Belgium has nothing to lose and that will make them a dangerous opponent for the higher ranked teams. There are no podium or top tier expectations, just the hope that this Olympic experience becomes the building block for the next generation of Belgium players. This puts Belgium in an enviable position – win and you’re a hero, lose and you’re still adored for making it to the show.
The #16 ranking says it all. Belgium is an entire tier of FIH events from joining the elite eight nations and it is a massive gap in talent and experience that they will endure in London. The team played a plucky style of game at its qualifier in Kontich, but spirit can only take you so far against the Argentina’s and Netherland’s of the world.
Belgium is in the enviable Group A, giving the team a fighting chance at pulling off an upset or two. But ultimately, they will find the competition in London to be at a new level. The team plays with enough character to avoid massive lopsided results, but ultimately, Big Ben’s clock will strike 12 o’clock for the Cinderella underdog’s hopes of placing in the top half of the field.
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