Experience and evolution: The making of Belgium's greatest-ever sports team

Belgium celebrate during the semifinal. WorldSportPics/Frank Uijlenbroek

Andre Henning was a youth coach back home in Germany when he saw the likes of Felix Denayer and Arthur van Doren come up the ranks in Belgium. "I saw it coming unfortunately [for Germany], that they can make history and dominate a decade. They were the best players at that level," German head coach Henning said on the eve of the FIH Men's Hockey World Cup 2023 final between the two teams.

Defending champions Belgium are already in their golden period and their legacy is secure. Between 2018 and 2021, this Belgian team won the World Cup, the European Championship and the Olympic gold.

So, what keeps them going?

"We can do something unique in Belgium, which no Belgian sports team has ever done, and that's what drives us today. We know we're pretty old, but that's what keeps us going," forward Florent van Aubel told ESPN after their shootout win over the Netherlands in the semifinal.

"We've built this team from the ground up, almost," captain Felix Denayer told ESPN. "The fact that we can keep doing this with this group is very, very special. We're very proud and hopefully we can add one more on Sunday."

Evolving through obstacles

Like with any team at the top of their sport, Belgium have had a target on their backs for the last couple of years, and have had to pull through some adversity. The biggest blow was perhaps at this World Cup, when an unfortunate knee injury meant star dragflicker Alexander Hendrickx could not play in the knockout stages of the competition.

Hendrickx's importance to this Belgian side cannot be understated. He was their top scorer in each of their three previous gold medal-winning campaigns - 7 goals in the last World Cup, 5 goals in the 2019 European Championships, and an astonishing 14 out of their 35 goals at the Tokyo Olympics.

How do you replace someone who scored 40% of your goals at the Olympics?

"That's the beauty of team sport. In every game, somebody else steps up," Denayer said. "Sometimes it's Tom Boon (their top scorer at this tournament with 7 goals so far), sometimes it's Vincent (Vanasch, widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world), sometimes it's someone else. Every player can step up and have an impact, that's what makes us special as a team."

The key here has been evolving as a side. For a team that is so used to Hendrickx being on the mark with his dragflicks from the edge of the circle, Belgium have had to evolve into a team with other avenues to score. They've only scored 4 goals from 25 penalty corners at the World Cup so far, and scored 14 field goals in the process.

"We lose one of the best short corner flickers in the world," coach Michel van den Heuvel said, "but we have a squad of important players who step up."

The value of experience

In the 18-man Belgian squad in Odisha this year, 11 have more than 200 international caps, while four more have over 100. There are those who say that there is no substitute for experience in big tournaments, and this Belgian team continues to prove them right.

In the semifinal against the Dutch, Belgium fell behind twice. But there were no signs of panic or the frantic rush that Indian hockey fans are used to seeing. "Experience helps. We stayed quite composed. We grew into the game in the second half, the experience we have helped us to continue believing until the end," the skipper said.

Whether it's van Doren's calm defending or Cedric Charlier coming alive in the circle or Nicolas de Kerpel stepping up with a crucial equaliser in a knockout game or John-John Dohmen's ability to know where and when to be, the value of this squad's combined experience of nearly 4,000 international matches is priceless.

That experience is also why if they're in a shootout, Belgium don't panic and invariably end up on the right side of the result. Indeed, they won the 2018 World Cup and 2021 Olympic final via shootout.

"We've got lots of experience, some guys who take good shootouts and a really good 'keeper, which is great because shootouts are always a mental exercise," van Aubel said. "We know he (Vanasch) can make saves, so for us, we know if we score even 2 or 3, he'll make the saves for us."

Van Aubel says a lot of them are getting old now, so the desire to be Belgium's most decorated sports team ever drives them. Denayer just calls it experience.

Now, that group of boys Andre Henning saw all those years ago and predicted to be the next hockey powerhouse stand in the way of his German team on Sunday. "They are in their 30s but modern sport shows guys in their 30s can play at an absolute world-class level. They're not vulnerable, weaker, not do they have any kind of disadvantage now," he said.

For this group of world-class Belgian men, often called the golden generation, a chance for more silverware awaits. Can the defending champions become an even more legendary team?