Europe is the powerhouse of world hockey and there can’t be two opinions about it. Six countries from the continent figure among the top 10 in the FIH rankings (Men).
The recent EuroHockey Championships in Holland was a remarkable show. They were held at the magnificent Wagener stadium.
For a long time, it was more or less a two-nation show. Holland and Germany were the perennial super powers. Spain and England/Great Britain had occasional successes at the international scene.
But in the recent times, the continental scene has changed. Belgium’s emergence is the most amazing. They were silver medallist at the 2016 Olympics. Their only two top-four positions came a long time back: bronze in 1920 when only four teams competed and 4th position in 1928. But it wasn’t totally unexpected; the Belgian hockey had been on the rise. They finished second at the Euro Hockey Nations 2013, reaching the final for the first time. And Belgium is there to stay. They finished second at the last year’s junior World Cup, reaching the final for the first time.
Likewise, England/GB have also been consistent achievers for quite some time. England won the Euro Nations for the first time in 2009 and reached all the semi-finals in the next four editions in the biennial event. At the global stage, Great Britain were the semi-finalists at 2012 Olympics for the first time since 1988 and England made it to the last-four at the last two World Cups (2010 & 2014).
Spain, the silver medallist at 2008 Olympics, have repeatedly shown their ability to defeat any team on their day. Of late, a dark horse has appeared on the European scene. When Ireland appeared in the 2016 Olympic, it was Irish hockey team’s first-ever qualification for the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza. Their previous appearance was in 1908 when hockey made its Olympic debut. Then the teams didn’t have to qualify; they were invited.
Arguably, Ireland’s biggest hockey success arrived when at the 2015 EuroHockey Championships, they surprised everyone by finishing third; they had never reached the semi-finals before. In the bronze medal match, the Green Machine twice came from behind to overpower the hosts England 4-2.
All this made the 2017 Euro Hockey Nations Championships a much anticipated event. Despite the fact that the Wagener stadium’s capacity was increased to 9,500, tickets for all days except two of the 10-day tournament had been sold out before the first match. As many as 18 broadcasters from all the five continents had bought the TV rights.
The eight-team championships lived up to its billing. There was exciting hockey throughout. None of the teams could win full points in the pool games. It was difficult to predict the results of the matches, especially those involving the above six teams.
Spain, who had lost 1-7 to Holland, faced Belgium, who had defeated the hosts 5-0. But Spain surprised everyone with a 2-0 win over the Belgians. The neighbours Belgium and Holland made it to the semis from the pool A.
It was even closer in the other pool. Germany, England and Ireland were locked in the battle for the two semi-final spots. Poland, the fourth side, lost all matches. Ireland drew with Germany 1-1 on the opening day. The Germans managed to scrape past England 4-3 and by defeating Poland on the last day qualified for the last-four. For the other semi-final spot from this pool, it came right down the wire. Ireland, heading the pool before the last day, needed only a draw against England and they appeared well on the way going 1-0 ahead in the 13th minute. It stayed that way till the half time. But the English, in a remarkable display, found the target twice in the second half to move to the semi-final.
The first semi-final between Germany and Belgium was full of drama. The Germans were one up as early as the 3rd minute. The Belgians came back with goals in the second and third quarter and it was 2-1 with just two minute to go. Germany got the equaliser in the 59th minute. It went to shootout. Vincent Vanach, the Belgian custodian, performed heroically blocking first four German attempts to carry his team to the final.
In the other semi-final, Holland had a relatively comfortable 3-1 win over England.
Holland and Belgium met again in the final. The Belgians had trounced the hosts 5-0 in the pool and when they went ahead by two goals before the half time, it seemed another rout was on the cards. But to the great delight of the home crowd, the hosts made an unbelievable recovery. The third quarter saw both the goals nullified. Holland went ahead in the 51st minute and with Belgium replacing the goalkeeper with an outfield player in the last minute, the Dutch sealed the win with the fourth goal in the last minute. The crowd went wild. All this doesn’t mean that the Belgians were devoid of any support. A number of travelling fans were present in all their matches. In fact, almost every competing nation had its legion of fans that had made it to Amsterdam. Many youngsters in the crowd wore the team shirts with the name and number of their favourite player.
It wasn’t confined to the stadium. The area around the Wagener Stadium had turned into a hockey village with 30 stalls where hockey equipment suppliers had set up shops to sell sticks, clothing and other essentials. The area also had temporary restaurants, some set up by the sponsors for their corporate clients. Rabo Bank, a mega sponsor of hockey in Holland, were the title sponsors. So the event was ‘Rabo EuroHockey Championships 2017’.
There were plenty of hockey-related activities throughout Amsterdam and the surrounding area during the Championships.