by Stephen Findlater
“It’s really simple,” Belgian sweeper Loick Luypaert says of this month’s EuroHockey Nations Cup. “We have three major competitions in hockey – the European Cup, the World Cup and the Olympics. Playing in the European Cup is something special!”
The Red Lions come into the tournament in great form, winning their Hockey World League Semi-Final in Johannesburg in July, scoring 37 goals in seven games, ending with a memorable 6-1 win over Germany in the final. They did so with several new faces involved with Nicolas de Kerpel, Agustin Meurmans, Victor Wegnez and the hugely impressive Arthur de Sloover making their senior tournament debuts, joining a side with almost a dozen Rio silver medalists.
“We are really happy with how it went,” Luypaert says of the new additions. “We were guessing how the young guys would do but they played really well. Every new player brings his own DNA to the group and the young guys had a lot of fun. You could see on the pitch they felt quite at home. De Sloover played a really good tournament at the back, was really secure and strong on the ball so he has a bright future. They all worked hard, deserved their selection and belong in this group.”
He did temper some of the excitement of beating Germany so comprehensively that the likes of Tobias Hauke, Martin Häner and Florian Fuchs were all absent but did say that it was something to savour. “Surprise is a big word but its always a bit of a guess before a tournament [how it will go]. We always go for the highest and after the Olympics, we said we want to be more dominant. We trained hard for the last year since Rio with a new group to make a new platform to excel. The score in the final was maybe a little over the top but when you beat Germany 6-1, you need to celebrate it! But we think it will be a different story in the Europeans!”
It will be a third Euros for the Braxgata man. His first was an emotional one, delighting the home crowd in 2013 with a silver medal. It was their best ever finish in the competition to date with the atmosphere raised each time the Red Lions sang their national anthem a capella.
“In Boom, in front of our own crowd, it was amazing in a big stadium at the highest level. The anthem was something we decided as a group. We wanted to do something special; we are really proud of our country, just a small country. When we pull on the jersey of the Red Lions, we want to show everyone we are proud to be Belgian. It was the start of something special and something we also did in Rio due to a technical problem in the semi-final against the Netherlands.”
The next Euro experience was not quite so memorable in 2015 in London. It came off the back of a successful World League tournament in Brasschaat but things did not go to plan and they missed out on the semi-finals to Ireland.
“We were over-trained, maybe going over the top after a really long World League. We didn’t have enough rest between the tournaments and thought we would just get there [to the semis]. We met Ireland who were on a roll and we were out of the tournament. It was a big lesson for the long term but it was not easy. We weren’t in a good vibe; that’s what happens in team sports. When things are not going your way, you get punished.”
The big outcome, in the wake of the tournament, saw Shane MacLeod come in as head coach in place of Jeroen Delmee and the New Zealander was quickly able to find the right mojo.
“He was only 10 months coach before Rio so he had a really short window to change things. He works in a really personal way and wants everyone to express themselves with how they feel and how they want to be on the pitch. He leaves a lot of freedom to the players and made a real group of us. He put us in front of a mirror to see what we could do better as a group and individually. In those 10 months, he probably worked the hardest of the whole group to build the machine we were in Rio. He brought us a lot of joy, for example, which was missing in the Euros in 2015.”
For Luypaert, the message in his mirror was one of simplification.“Sometimes it’s really simple. I am not the most fancy player! He would tell me just to look for the passes that I see and to play them, not force the game. When you play a lot of hockey, you start to want to get too much from yourself and your team mates. From the mental part, he made that big change to enjoying it in the simplest way. You could see we all worked together and enjoyed it in Rio.”
Their meeting with the Netherlands in the group stages in the Wagener Stadium already looks a highlight of the early phase of the competition, a meeting between the two winners of the World League Semi-Finals this summer. “Last time we played them was the semi-final in Rio so I am sure they will have that revenge feeling! They have also changed a lot of their group and their systems, totally different from Rio. These are always high stake games when you meet the other top five sides in the world; you want to show what you can do, to test yourself!”
There is a sense, though, that it is the Red Lions time to land a major gold medal. Their rise has been steady and growing since their breakthrough bronze medal in at the Euros a decade ago.
“That’s definitely the next step; we see where we have come from in 2007 in Manchester for Beijing. The next thing is to win a major tournament – this European Cup, the World Cup or the next European Cup in Belgium [in 2019]. We always aim now to the highest level every time we compete but we are not the only guys who want to win this competition! We won’t pressure ourselves; we will see if we are good enough to win a tournament soon.”