FIH Pro League: Belgium World Cup-winning coach Shane McLeod ready for India challenge in ‘home tour away from home’
“Returning to Bhubaneswar brings back so many memories,” says Belgium men’s hockey team coach Shane McLeod. It was only around 14 months ago when the Mcleod-led Red Lions won their maiden World Cup trophy in Bhubaneswar, after a dramatic final against the Netherlands. After a 2-2 tie in the regulation time, the match was pushed to shootouts. Arthur de Sloover stepped up to take the final shoot for Belgium and scored - winning the goal for his side. Belgium broke into celebrations, the podium was brought out... but there was a twist in the tale.
Netherlands reviewed the call, and the replayed showed that Sloover had struck the ball on his leg before hitting the net. The goal was cancelled. The shootout was taken to sudden death. Florent van Aubel from Belgium found the net in the sudden death, but the Dutch star striker Jeroen Hertzberger struck his shot over the net. Belgium, this time, had actually won. The celebrations were even louder than before, and Mcleod was seen heaving a sigh of relief.
“It was a fantastic night. We celebrated into the wee hours of the evening. We enjoyed a great deal. Not everyday, you win the World Cup. No one wanted to that night to end,” the Belgium coach tells Hindustan Times in an exclusive telephonic interview a day after reaching India for the Pro League clash.
India are set to play their second leg of FIH Men’s Pro League against the world champions at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar this weekend. McLeod, who is returning to India for the first time with his team after lifting the World Cup trophy, calls the leg as his “home tour away from home”.
“We really enjoy the stadium, and the city. It feels like our home tour away from home,” he says. “We hope we have a small fan base in India. We really like coming here. People are really into hockey, they love the sport. They love those who play good, we would love to see them cheering for us. People also cheer for India in Belgium because of the way they play. It will be two great nights for the hockey community.”
Of course, Belgium have returned with almost a similar squad that played at the World Cup in 2018. That has been one of the reasons for the country’s sudden meteoric rise in field hockey - the consistency in their squads, and the coaching departments. McLeod explains it further: “It’s a mature team. They have been together for a number of years now. They know each other, how they play. You can see they get on really well, on and off the field. It’s a really nice culture all around, which makes it difficult for other teams to try and break them down. It’s such a tight unit.”
But this time, Belgium will be facing an altogether different team than the one they faced in the group stages of Hockey World Cup. That match had ended in a 2-2 draw. At the time, India was under the guardianship of coach Harendra Singh, who was removed from the position immediately after the tournament. A few months later, former Australian player and coach, Graham Reid was hired to be India men’s senior team coach.
Under Reid, India has seen a return of quite a number of senior players who had given the World Cup tournament a miss, including striker SV Sunil, dragflicker Rupinder Pal Singh, and forward Lalit Upadhyay. A number of youngsters have also broken among the ranks - midfielder Vivek Sagar Prasad being one of them. India have been largely successful in the past few months, and the win over the Netherlands in the first leg of Pro League, the same side that defeated them in World Cup 2018 quarterfinal, is a testament to how much the side has improved.
“We have been watching the Indian team - we have seen them improve over the past year. We witnessed how they played against the Netherlands. They showed a lot of abilities, and I thought they were very effective in possession. We came to see how they go against us, and how we go against them. I think it will be a pretty good game of hockey,” McLeod says.
India travelled to Belgium for practice games last year, before their Olympic qualifiers against Russia, and won all their five games against the world champions. But McLeod had not played his first team in any of the five matches in that series. This time, the Belgium coach is ready to play all his cards.
“It was a very different team that played India in Belgium last year. It was our ‘beyond Tokyo’ group, the squad of players we plan to set up after the Olympics. We wanted to test some of the players and to check out if they are ready for international hockey. This time, all the players who are expected to be a part of Tokyo are in the squad. We have brought our strongest group,” he says.
Belgium picked up a win over World No. 1 and the defending Pro League champions Australia in their first leg this season, and are currently placed on top of the table with 11 points. McLeod believes the momentum will come in handy for his team to tackle India, who will be playing in front of a 30,000-strong home crowd. “We are a few games into the Pro League now, so we can now take our game deeper, which will help us a lot. Our preparations have been really good,” he says.
With Olympics set to begin just a month after the culmination of Pro League this year, McLeod believes this year, the tournament is not about winning, but to get a read of the opponents before Tokyo. “This year, winning the Pro League is not the most important thing this year - it is to play against the top teams, check out the competition, and getting the feel of Olympic teams. It is important to see where we stand in from of the competition, and to recognise the areas we need to work on before Tokyo,” he signs off.
How World Cup win helped field hockey in Belgium
In the football-dominated Belgium, the World Cup win has sparked a new life into field hockey. Belgium coach McLeod expresses satisfaction that the people in the country understand the values and culture that his team brings out on the field.
“Field hockey has grown in the country. It has developed a fantastic following. What I really like is that people understand the values our team has displayed. They are very respectful and a humble group of people,” he says.
He further adds that hockey is giving people a sense of identity, much like cricket gives it to people in India. “It is kind of like cricket in India, and hockey in India in the past... the nation is looking for a sense of an identity in our team. We did quite a good job with our group, in inculcating good values within the team, which is important to people,” he says.