Barbara Nelen is the multi capped (258) captain of the Belgium Red Panthers and, with just over a week to go before her team take on the might of Germany in Dusseldorf, the 28-year-old says the players are “super-excited” to be back in action.
It has been a tough few months for the Belgium team (World ranking:12). Despite a very good performance in the inaugural season of the FIH Hockey Pro League – in which the lowest ranked team [at the time] punched high above their weight – they failed to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Over the past few months, starting well before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the squad did a lot of restructuring and will now be in a re-building phase as the Pro League returns to action. There is a buzz about the coaching staff and players that suggests a bright future for the new-look Red Panthers.
The team will need to be on top of their game. Germany (WR: 4) has won the past two FIH Hockey Pro League encounters, and will have the advantage of a home fixture. Belgium will be looking to make the most of their neat, paced passing game, which has become their trademark under the leadership of Head Coach Niels Thijssen.
Do you feel as if you are physically and mentally prepared for the FIH Hockey Pro League season to begin again?
Barbara Nelen: Physically we are fine. We had some individual programmes so everyone stayed fit and worked on their own. But mentally it was a bit more difficult. Everything we did was alone and normally we are used to training together. That said, we are also super-happy to be back [training] together and back on the pitch together and to play our first international game in five months. We are really looking forward [as a team].”
Has the past few months and the Covid-19 situation changed your perspective on being a national team player in any way?
Barbara Nelen: “During lock-down, I had a lot of time to think and I realised that playing as a national team player is really a privilege and also playing with your friends and [seeking to] achieve the same goal is something special.”
How do you feel at the prospect of playing international sport again?
Barbara Nelen: I am really excited to play with my team mates again, even though I know the conditions will be different with the new guidelines. I think the most important thing is the health of the people. But, we are very, very excited to play an international team again.
How do you and your teammates feel about playing hockey under strict health/hygiene guidelines and the challenges that will pose?
Barbara Nelen: “Following the guidelines will be no effort at all, it is too important now. We must just do it otherwise the hockey will stop again. Also the health of people in general is just too important, so we will just adapt and it will not be difficult for us.”
What are you hoping of the next few months of FIH Hockey Pro League action?
Barbara Nelen: “I am hoping we can play in the same conditions as before [pre Covid-19]. To play in front of home crowds and surrounded by your friends and family and to just enjoy hockey together again.”