The Estadio Betero in Valencia was the stage as an exciting new era of international hockey began on Saturday (19 January), as the men of Spain faced newly-crowned world champions Belgium in the opening match of the FIH Pro League.
The match between the Red Sticks and the Red Lions – the first of 144 FIH Pro League matches that will be played in the lead-up to the June’s Grand Final event in Amsterdam, Netherlands – proved to be something of a thriller, as the hosts fought back from 2-0 down by scoring twice in the final three minutes to force a draw, before winning the subsequent shoot-out in dramatic style thanks largely to the goalkeeping heroics of Quico Cortes.
The match in Valencia was the perfect way to start the ground-breaking home and away league, a competition that will see over 20 venues across 11 nations playing host to 144 international matches, providing a global spread of world-class hockey, across multiple time-zones, from January to June. It is a competition that is very much seen as a genuine game-changer for the sport.
With two high-quality, attack-focussed teams going head-to-head, the fans that had made their way to the Estadio Betero had every right to expect a hugely entertaining match, and they were not to be disappointed. Spain, keen to make up for their disappointing pool stage elimination at the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018, were outstanding against the winners of that event, with Belgium shot-stopper Vincent Vanasch making numerous key saves to stop the Red Sticks from taking the lead in the early exchanges.
Spain were probably the better team for most of the first two periods of the match, although Belgium would certainly have broken the deadlock were it not for some top class saves from Quico Cortes, who twice denied the ever-dangerous Tom Boon while Tanguy Cosyns also blazed a shot wide of the target.
Despite the entertainment, the opening two periods remained score-less. However, that all changed in the third period when Belgium’s Maxime Plennevaux struck brilliant backhand strike on the half-volley to give the Red Lions a 1-0 lead midway through the period after Spain failed to effectively clear the danger.
When Belgium, who currently sit at the top of the FIH Hero World Rankings, doubled their lead with five minutes remaining thanks to a wonderful penalty corner drag-flick from Alexander Hendrickx, it seemed that Spain’s chances of claiming something from the match had ended. However, the Red Sticks never stopped believing and deservedly pulled a goal back with just over two minutes of the match remaining thanks to Ignacio Rodriguez, who guided Pau Quemada’s low penalty corner flick between the legs of Vanasch to halve the deficit.
Sensing that the comeback was on, Spain immediately replaced goalkeeper Cortes with an outfield player in a bid to overload the Belgian defence. It was a tactic that paid off with just ten seconds remaining, as Enrique Gonzalez fired into the Belgian net to level the scores and, with no draws in the FIH Pro League, force a shoot-out in which Cortes excelled.
The vastly-experienced Spanish goalkeeper did not concede in the shoot-out, with Josep Romeu and Alvaro Iglesias scoring for the Red Sticks to give Spain two points from the opening match of the FIH Pro League, with Belgium taking one point from the encounter.
Speaking at the conclusion of the contest, Man of the Match Xavi Lleonart of Spain said: “I think it was an incredible game. We started really well. Yes, we conceded two goals but we still really believed in our team. We showed that our level can be the same as the Belgian team, so we are really happy and really excited about playing in this competition.”
The FIH Pro League continues on 25 January with Spain men in action once again, when they take on Great Britain at the Estadio Betero at 1100 Central European Time (UTC +1).