Belgium deny Kookaburras hockey gold after extraordinary shootout drama

It felt like an eternity. After Australia’s Jake Whetton had missed his penalty shootout attempt in the men’s hockey gold medal match on Thursday night, the Belgium team erupted in celebration. They mobbed each other and their heroic goalkeeper, Vincent Vanasch. In the stands, their staff jumped for joy – a pocket of energy at an otherwise empty Oi Hockey Stadium. Then, the referee beckoned for the video umpire.

For five minutes, Australia’s gold medal hopes hung in the balance as Benjamin Gontgen scrutinised the play. Had Vanasch fouled Whetton in attempting a save? Eventually, Gontgen decided he had. The Belgian team, sheepish, walked back to the halfway mark. The gold medal was still in play. Whetton would have another attempt.

In the end the agonising wait proved anticlimactic – Whetton missed his retake, handing Belgium a 3-2 shootout victory and the Olympic gold medal. The celebrations erupted again. After a one-Games absence, Australia’s Kookaburras are back on the Olympic podium. But they had to settle for silver at Tokyo 2020.

Long considered one of Australia’s most consistently successful Olympic teams, the Kookaburras had won a medal at every Games since 1992, and claimed gold in Athens in 2004. But the team was routed by the Netherlands in the quarter-final in Rio, ending their podium streak.

They bounced back in Tokyo, going undefeated through the group stage and then getting revenge on the Dutch in the quarter-finals. After seeing off Germany in the semi-finals earlier this week, a gold-medal encounter with the Belgians awaited. Belgium won the silver medal in Rio, losing to Argentina.

It was a case of one better for the Belgians and disappointment for the Kookaburras on a warm Tokyo night. Both teams were in impeccable defensive form in the opening quarters. On the odd occasion either goalkeeper was called into action, they pulled off stunning saves.

Belgian’s Florent van Aubel broke the deadlock early in the second half and for a period it appeared the Kookaburras’ gold medal hopes were over – struggling to find offensive momentum as Belgium bunkered down.

But Tom Wickham, who won gold with Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, had other ideas. Two minutes into the final quarter, a desperate lunge from Whetton kept the ball in play, with the veteran recovering to square it into the shooting circle. After co-captain Aran Zalewski lobbed the ball towards the goal, Wickham finished it off with a clinical tap-in.

With neither nation able to find a winner as the clock ticked down, the gold medal match was destined for a shootout. Australia started poorly with Blake Govers’s indecision seeing his penalty saved by Belgium keeper Vincent Vanasch. The opening goal-scorer, van Aubel, then gave Belgium the advantage by coolly converting his penalty.

After a run of converted penalties, Australia’s keeper Andrew Charter levelled proceedings with a clever save. But a miss by Joshua Simmonds handed the advantage back to Belgium. When Whetton stepped up, it was do or die. Ultimately he had two attempts but failed to convert either. Despite the interruption to their initial celebration, it was to be Belgium’s night after all.

Despite the disappointment of defeat, Kookaburras co-captain Zalewski said it was great to be back in action after the pandemic-induced lack of competitive hockey. “It was a really enjoyable tournament to be here in Tokyo,” he said. “We had a pretty challenging 18 months in Australia – we didn’t have any competition. We were watching the European teams play against each other and thought they might have an advantage over us. But we had to use that as our advantage, come out here unknown.”

In 2004, Australia won Olympic goldin extra time, but a rule change meant the Tokyo 2020 final went straight to penalties. “To lose in shootouts is never a good way, we always want to play the game,” said Zalewski. “We really look fondly on the 2004 gold medal game that went to extra time. It shows the durability of the team and we really rate our fitness. So it’s a shame we didn’t get to do that, but shootouts is what it is.”