Photo: Koen Suyk

Red Panthers want ‘to push for a medal’

by Stephen Findlater

Belgium’s Louise Versavel is hoping her side can find a greater level of consistency throughout the European Championships as they make the push for a potential medal shot. In recent months, the Red Panthers have produced a number of eye-catching wins over the world’s top sides. Most recently, Versavel nicked the only goal in a 1-0 victory over world number one side the Netherlands while, in the World League in Brussels, they beat New Zealand and pushed Australia all the way in the group stages.

But they could not translate those strong performances in the playoff matches with shoot-out defeats to Korea and Spain leading to an eighth place finish with their World Cup hopes very much in the balance.
Reflecting on the tournament, Versavel, (22) said it is something that they need to get right. “In Brussels, we started the tournament really well and beating New Zealand was a great achievement for the women’s hockey in Belgium,” she said. Later on in the tournament, from the quarter-finals on, we weren’t able to play the same level as we did in the first games. And those games were the crucial games but we didn’t perform in the way we showed earlier on that we were capable of.”

The win over the Dutch at Schiedam provided a leap in confidence in the build-up to the Rabo EuroHockey Championships in Amsterdam, a real smash and grab effort against their illustrious opponents. It is the second time that Versavel has played in a win over the Dutch – both in practice games – but she is keen not to read too much into just the result. “For us, the most important thing was the further development and improvement of our game. Of course, getting a win over the world number one is definitely a boost for us. However, we’re staying very down to earth and, in the next few weeks, we’ll keep working hard on improving our game and when we play them again at the Euros we’ll give it our all and get the best result we can out of that game.”

Belgium are currently in their final preparation phase and they will play three high-quality matches in Barcelona from August 6th to 9th against the Dutch again, Germany and the Spanish hosts. They do so with 17 of the players that lined out in Belgium with the one change seeing Michelle Struijk coming in for Emma Puvrez who moves back into the Under-21 panel. Looking ahead to their group at the Euros in Amsterdam, the Netherlands are a well-known opponent when the two sides meet yet again. In stark contrast, the Czech Republic – the world number 24 – are a side whom Versavel has never played before.

She describes that meeting as a “must-win” tie but the critical tie for their semi-final hopes looks set to be the one against Spain. The two countries recent history is very much intertwined with the Redsticks edging Belgium out of the medal matches on goal difference in 2015 in London and also shaded their seventh place playoff in July in the World League. “Over the last years, we’ve often come up against Spain in crucial games. These are always very tough games with a close result and I think this year at the Euros will be no different. Spain and us are both fighting for that spot in the semifinals. The other pool games are just as important as goal difference may also be decisive.”

This will be the dangerous forward’s third European Championships, playing in London in 2015 and at her Braxgata home pitch in 2013 when she was just 18 years-old. “Boom [2013] was one of my first big tournaments, and it was amazing to play in front of our home crowd, my own club! It gave me goosebumps and the crowd was amazing. It gave me such a boost every single time. It is definitely one of my highlights [of my career]. It was in the beginning of my career and playing such big tournaments was still new for me. I mostly remember the semi-final against Germany where we were so close to a spot in the final but just didn’t get there in the end. I think we played a great tournament there and finishing fourth was a great result for us.”

That was their best ever performance in eight previous appearances in the top level of the European Championships. Indeed, the last decade has been a special one for the Red Panthers. They returned to the “A” division in 2011 after 12 years in the lower tiers and have been in the top five ever since. Now, they hope to produce a consistent set of high-level performances to push for a medal.