Belgium women’s hockey team appears to be taking a leaf out of their men’s team book. Of course, they are not a world or Olympic champion like their men counterparts but surely they are a rapidly-improving women’s hockey outfit and much ‘better’ than their world number eight ranking suggests. The Red Panthers haven’t done much of note on the international stage if their performances in major FIH tourneys over the last decade or so is anything to go by. Belgium eves had finished last 11th among twelve teams at the 2012 London Olympics, and was subsequently out of the Olympic programme in 2016 and 2021. They had finished last at the 2014 World Cup at The Hague and settle for 10th position at the 2018 World Cup.
Clearly, the revival of Belgium women’s hockey is there for all to see. And they demonstrated that in the second leg Pro League tie against India, handing the 2021 Olympic semifinalist a 5-0 drubbing. The weaklings of the Indian defence was brutally exposed by the Red Panthers – like the first leg, it was Nelen Barbara, who racked up an early goal after a fine baseline run by Abi Raye, who dodged past experienced Deep Grace Ekka and set it up for their more senior team-mate. Charlotte Englebert who caused headaches for the Indian defence in the first leg, doubled the lead with a fine solo hurt breaching the defence of Savita. India could never recover from those two goals in the first four minutes of play. They were made to chase the ball for most part with occasional bouts of aggression.
The match seemed to be out of Indias’ grasp when Abi Raye made it 3-0 for Belgium but not before two doughty back-to-back saves by Bichu Devi Kharibam off Vanessa Blockmans and Nelen Barbara. It was a sight to see as Bichu seemed to have done enough to minimize any damage but on the rebound she was beaten by Abi Raye. Deep Grace Ekka capped off a poor day on the pitch, not only conceding a shortie but getting green-carded for needless tackle on a Belgium player. Stephanie Vanden Borre made India pay for that howler by Deep Grace Ekka, firing home to put the Red Panthers in the box seat.
Belgium had a lot going for them when they strode out in the second half with a cozy 4-0 lead. The Indian agony was not over yet – Belgium captain Alix Gerniers came into action creating a move from the right for the precociously talented Ambre Ballenghien to deflect it home as the scoreline read 5-0. India did score one after Sharmila Tagore fed Navneet Kaur whose hit brooked no answer from Belgium goalkeeper Elodie Picard.
Going by the FIH rankings, 8th ranked Belgium upset 6th ranked India but not many can deny that the Red Panthers were a better side than India, at least in the latest two Pro League encounters. Coach Janneka Schopan – herself a former Dutch defender of repute – would need to focus on her backline if the Blueskirts are to turn over a new leaf in the remaining Pro League games against Argentina and USA as well as in the upcoming World Cup.