When they were walking to their changing room at the Kalinga Stadium ahead of their final match against the Netherlands, Belgium striker Florent van Aubel glanced at the picture frames on the walls of the corridor. Organisers at the 2018 Hockey World Cup had lined the walls with pictures of former winners and as he glanced at those photographs, Van Aubel knew he wanted to be there too. "When we were walking past all those pictures, we saw so many names," he says. "There was no Belgian name, but we knew we would be on that wall too." It took him back to his own childhood in the town of Ghent two decades ago. "Back then I only had pictures of Dutch players like Teun de Nooijer. He was the big star for us."
Belgian hockey was nowhere on the world scene then. Just seven years ago they were ranked 13th in the world, far below the powerhouses of Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. "When I was a child, I thought I was the only one who even knew that we had a national hockey team," says goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch.
Yet a steady and carefully planned out youth development programme would see them chart a remarkable rise to the top of world. 2008 was a historic year for that was the first time in 32 years that Belgium played the Olympics. It coincided with an even more significant event -- it was the year their U-18 team would win the European Championships. That was a side that included the likes of Van Aubel, Simon Gougnard and Loick Luypaert, who would go on to form the core of the senior team.
That core would be bolstered by even more youth squads. Teams featuring the likes of Arthur van Doren, the defender who was named the World Cup's best player, would continue Belgium's dominance at the under-18 level and add the European U-21 crown as well. The world was starting to take notice.
By the London Olympics, the Belgian team was starting to create ripples in international waters. "When we went to the London Olympics, we knew we were a good team," says Van Aubel. "We were fifth in the London Olympics but we started to grow."
By the 2016 Olympics, anything short of a medal was considered a disappointment. "Since 2008 there was a change in mentality," says Vanasch. "We were simply happy to go in Beijing and by Rio we were going into the tournament to win it. We were not happy if we didn't take a medal."
Belgium reaching the final in Rio de Janeiro shook the world order like nothing else -- and not just for the nature of their side's growth. Coach Shane McLeod had crafted an innovative zonal-based defence in contrast to the man-to-man marking that had hitherto dominated hockey. After the Olympics, Holland -- the erstwhile innovators in hockey -- had adopted the trend. "It's a bit of a compliment," McLeod would say at the World Cup.
Van Aubel still finds the journey remarkable. "It doesn't really make sense," he says. "It's crazy actually. Belgium is a tiny country. There's only 11 million of us. And hockey isn't even the biggest sport in Belgium. But we grew we grew together. And one day that generation said, 'Okay boys, we are going to do it. We are going to be the best in the world.'"
He reiterates that the shift in mentality was dramatic, the actual process wasn't sudden. "It wasn't as if we just snapped our finger and suddenly we were world champions," he says. "We took so many hits before we could get to where we were."
The team was so overwhelmed by making the final of the 2016 Olympics that they admit they weren't able to prepare for the actual gold-medal match. When they lost the final of the European Championships, many wondered whether this prodigiously talented side -- defender Van Doren is the FIH player of the year while Vanasch is the goalkeeper of the year -- really had it in them to step on the highest step of the podium.
Not the team though. "We always believed we would be the best," says Van Aubel. "Even when we lost we always knew that this team was special." Defeats were part of the process. "We have gone to finals and we have lost finals. I think you have to take hits before you can start getting mature. We took some heavy hits before we could win this title. We took it last year when we lost to India at the World League final. But we learned a lot because it is a process."
The team overcame perhaps its biggest challenge of all when midfielder Simon Gougnard lost his father to cancer on the morning of their semi-final match. He insisted on playing through the incredible personal tragedy. It was a sense of kinship borne of the close bond the team had formed over all the years they had played together. "It was a bittersweet moment," Gougnard would say after the final. "I was obviously so very sad, but at the same time I was happy knowing my family was with me at this time."
Indeed, the team's relationship wasn't just limited to those in Bhubaneswar. Emmanuel Stockbroekx, the team's premier drag flicker, missed the tournament to injury but still did his best to keep his side motivated through the three-week long tournament. "Manu made a movie of every teammate's family member, wishing them luck in the final, and he sent it through yesterday at night," says captain Thomas Briels.
Stockbroekx will get his chance to be part of the team as they prepare for a busy 2019. Their sights will be set on adding further gold medals at the European Championships and subsequently at the Olympics in Tokyo. They surely go into those tournaments as favourites as might be expected from a team that has earned the right to be called Belgium's golden generation. At least after Sunday night in Bhubaneswar that is. "We didn't call ourselves the golden generation because we hadn't really won a tournament," says Van Aubel. "So now that we have won this we can actually call ourselves the golden generation."