The message from Gregory to his younger sibling is loud and clear: ‘Beat India’. That sentiment shared by the Stockbroekx brothers has a backstory set in Lucknow.
It was 2016. On a cold December 18 evening, the Belgian blueprint for success had a chance to add a major bullet point to its sporting history. After the seniors returned to the Olympic podium (silver) in Rio to end a 96-year wait, the Belgian colts came close to providing a ‘golden’ ending to the year by winning the Junior World Cup (JWC). But India stood in their way in the summit clash.
The Harjeet Singh-led boys, with two stunning goals courtesy Gurjant Singh and Simranjeet Singh, put a dagger in Belgian hearts as India tasted its second JWC success amid deafening roars from a packed house.
At the receiving end of that 2-1 defeat was also Gregory, who incidentally came close to scoring as well in the game. The agony of that miss, and of course the loss, is perhaps still burning inside Gregory.
Gregory Stockbroekxleft, with his bother Thibeau. (Photo courtesy – coach Jeroen Baart)
“He will remember it for life,” said Thibeau talking to TimesofIndia.com in Bhubaneswar.
“He still talks about it with family and friends…I hear stories from him that it (the 2016 JWC final) was a great game and of course, I want to do better than him and win against India.
For personal reasons, Gregory didn’t continue top-flight hockey beyond two years after that.
“Gregory chose a different path after playing the Junior World Cup,” coach Jeroen Baart, who was at the helm of affairs in 2016 and now in 2021 as well, told TimesofIndia.com in Bhubaneswar. “I think he played two more seasons at a high level (for Antwerp) in Belgium, but then he chose to focus more on his work life.”
The coach went on to compare the playing styles of the two brothers.
“I think they are different athletes. Gregory was a bit smaller and a bit more robust, a bit more on instinct, whereas Thibeau is much more refined, a bit more on technique, a bit more speed on him,” said Baart.
Incidentally Emmanuel Stockbroekx, who is Gregory and Thibeau’s cousin and third top-flight hockey player in the family plays for the Red Lions (senior Belgium team) and was part of the 2016 silver medal-winning Olympic team and the 2018 squad that won the World Cup.
Thibeau Stockbroekx (Photo courtesy – Hockey Belgium’s Twitter handle)
OVER TO THIBEAU
For now, it’s Thibeau’s time.
Like his elder brother five years ago, Thibeau is here to play the JWC for Belgium, who next face hosts India in the quarterfinals. And that’s the connection, and the sentiment. Thibeau has a chance to do what Gregory couldn’t.
In fact, Gregory messaged Thibeau a few days back.
“I received a message from him (Gregory). He said, ‘This time India will not win. Do everything you can to beat them.’ But we play them in the quarterfinals and he played India in the final. So there is a big difference,” Thibeau further told TimesofIndia.com.
Thibeau is bang on. There is a big difference, just that maybe he doesn’t yet realise that getting knocked out in the quarters will hurt India way more than what the defeat in the 2016 final did to Belgium. And so it will be for Belgium too, if India once again manage to put it across them.
But the world these days and the setting in Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium is a lot different than the Lucknow of 2016. Covid protocols decide pretty much everything, including whether there will be spectators in the stands.
In Bhubaneswar, there will just be a handful of fans. In Lucknow, the stadium was full.
“Gregory once told me that they couldn’t communicate with each other on the pitch (during the 2016 JWC final) because it was so noisy,” said Thibeau, who has already played for the Red Lions.
“This is my first JWC. We have all been looking forward to it. I think nobody in our team, except the coach, has been here (in India) before. It’s an amazing stadium. None of us have played in such a big stadium with 16,000 capacity,” the 21-year-old added.
The change rooms that Odisha built for the teams with personalized space for each player has also caught Thibeau’s attention.
“The stadium is really nice, also the changing room which has your name and your own seat.
“Everyone here loves hockey. There’s really a lot of passion in the sport, in the papers here. It’s very different than what we get in Belgium. There is more attention for the sport. In Belgium, it’s growing but not as big as here. It’s nice to see ourselves in newspapers and on TV,” he further told TimesofIndia.com.
Thibeau Stockbroekx (Photo courtesy – Thibeau’s Instagram account)
In all fairness, India didn’t expect to meet Belgium in the quarterfinals; but a defeat against France in their opening game put the home team on the backfoot, until they demolished Canada and Poland to finish second in Pool B.
The Belgians, with two wins and a draw, topped Pool A by edging out No. 2 Malaysia on goal difference.
“I think it’s going to be a great game…We have been analysing (India’s game). They are really good on the counter. They are playing in their own stadium and have a lot of passion in their game,” said Thibeau.
All of India’s drag-flickers, especially Sanjay and Araijeet Singh Hundal, have exhibited fine scoring form — forcing opponents to be wary of India off penalty corners (PC). Belgium’s worries are along the same lines.
“We have trust in our goalkeepers and our PC defence team. We will do everything we can to stop them, but in the first place, we don’t want to give them any PCs, because I think it’s a weapon for them,” said the striker.
Thibeau is considered to be one of the hottest properties in Belgian hockey currently, one who could go on to make a fortune for himself and his country on the pitch. But with his elder brother’s inclination towards building a professional career, coach Baart sounded a bit anxious.
“I am not sure what Thibeau wants to do in the next couple of years, but I think he has a pretty bright future (in hockey) ahead of him. He can really conquer the hockey world, and I am looking forward to that as a coach.”