Hockey World Cup: Netherlands revel in Rourkela's love for hockey

Members of the Netherlands team acknowledge the Rourkela crowd after their 4-0 win over Malaysia on Saturday. World Sport Pics

When India played Spain in their Men's Hockey World Cup 2023 opener, a packed house at the Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela created an atmosphere for the ages, and it was a night that the hockey world will remember for a while.

Among the 20-odd thousand present in the stadium on Friday night were members of the Netherlands team - and they were there for a reason. The 18-man Dutch squad has 10 players making their World Cup debuts.

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Playing their first game at the largest all-seater hockey stadium in the world was going to be tough. Coach Jeroen Delmee ensured they were there in attendance to watch India take on Spain a day before their opener, just to get used to the atmosphere.

"We were here at the India game to get the first impression, and also for the players playing at this level for the first time to get used to the stadium, the noise, the impact," Delmee said after the Dutch beat Malaysia 4-0 on Saturday.

On Friday, Dutch skipper Thierry Brinkman told ESPN that after experiencing Bhubaneswar last time, he was looking forward to seeing what Rourkela would bring to the table. They needed to get used to the atmosphere because barring a few empty seats, Rourkela had come out in full force, even though the host nation wasn't playing.

The packed stadium got their first real taste of the Dutch style of play in the fourth minute when Brinkman got hold of the ball midway from the halfway line and the 23-metre line. The crowd rose in anticipation and the decibel levels duly followed. When Brinkman was dispossessed inside the box, "oohs" and "aahs" rang around the Birsa Munda Stadium. They had turned up to watch world-class players play world-class hockey.

And that was the crux of Delmee's biggest praise for the crowd. "It was nice to see that they not only love the Indian hockey, but the other teams and the way they play," the Dutch coach said.

Thijs van Dam, who plays as a forward and was the young player of the tournament in 2018, revelled in the spotlight once again, scoring the opener in his team's win against Malaysia. His goal came in the 19th minute when he received the ball in the circle, turned and unleashed a fierce shot into the top corner. The roar and the fireworks that followed induce goosebumps.

"India is a very special place for me," van Dam told ESPN after the match. "Last time in Bhubaneswar, and now here, it just seems to be getting bigger with every time we come here," he said.

Rourkela on Friday saw Zach Wallace and Harmanpreet Singh miss penalty strokes. And when the Netherlands got one, the crowd ensured they were right behind Jip Janssen. "Netherlands, Netherlands" was the cry as Janssen stepped up. Where Wallace and Harmanpreet faltered, Janssen didn't.

"It feels good to play hockey in front of this crowd," was a simple summation from van Dam.

In the third quarter, the Dutch technique was letting them down, as both Delmee and Brinkman would later acknowledge, but every missed trap, every misplaced pass was greeted with a warm round of applause, a "let's go again", if you may.

So, when Teun Beins and Jorrit Croon added late goals in the final quarter to put the game past Malaysia, it was almost as if the Dutch were saying "thank you, Rourkela, these goals are for you."

"They created a great atmosphere for us," Delmee went on to say, and as the players took a lap of honour around the stadium, it felt like it was the least that the Rourkela crowd deserved.

They'll all take the night, recharge those throats and come back on Sunday, there's a big India game waiting for them, even though they don't need that to bring their A-Game to the stands.