First rushers in hockey are always flirting with the fine line between bravado and stupidity. But for Victor Wegnez, taking blows is second nature.
At home, he was a ‘punching bag’ for his father. In the mean streets of Molenbeek – the notorious Brussels suburb – he’d have to ‘fight to the death’. And on the hockey field, he is not afraid to run straight into the path of balls hit at a speed of more than 100 kmph.
“I am thankful for all those things,” says the Belgium midfielder, one of the stars in their run to the semifinals of the World Cup. “It made me who I am. If I didn’t have my youth, maybe I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
Wegnez sits on a cushioned chair in the comfortable surroundings of a luxury hotel a mile away from the Kalinga Stadium, recalling a childhood when he was ‘dealing with shit.’ The 27-year-old describes Molenbeek, where he was born and grew up, as an area that was ‘not really nice’. “It was made of violence and stuff,” he adds.
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) January 17, 2023
As per a Guardian report, Molenbeek was dubbed as Belgium’s terror hub, after those responsible for attacks in Paris, at Brussels airport and the city’s metro station – all in 2016 – were from the neighbourhood. Close to 50 people then went on to join ISIS in Syria, the report added. “You had to fight to show them that they wouldn’t steal something from you and to fight to the death,” he told The Hockey Paper in an interview last year. “I was fighting every week after school.”
When he looks back at all those years now, more than the neighbourhood, it’s the atmosphere at home that left a deeper impact on him. Wegnez says he was beaten up by his father, with whom he shares an estranged relationship now. “My dad used to be really aggressive. He didn’t help. I told him I don’t get it; I don’t understand why you were like this. There is no excuse for what he did.”
Wegnez was not even 10 when he joined a hockey club – somewhat aptly named Royal Daring – and when he was 11, he left his home. The hockey field became his safe haven.
“Being at home, I was dealing with shit because you were entering a space you didn’t want to be in. When I was at hockey, I was away from family and really doing something I loved – I could see my friends, scream, run, hit the ball and do things I couldn’t do at home,” he says. “If I did something out of what my father wanted (at home), it was a little bit of a problem. But hockey changed my life.”
His talent on the field didn’t go unnoticed as Wegnez rose to captain Belgium’s junior team, which lost to India in the final of the 2016 Junior World Cup, and went on to become a pillar of the all-conquering senior side, the Belgian golden generation that truly delivered under Shane McLeod, who led them to the Olympic and world titles.
𝐅𝐮𝐥𝐥-𝐓𝐢𝐦𝐞: 𝐁𝐞𝐥𝐠𝐢𝐮𝐦 𝟐-𝟎 𝐍𝐞𝐰 𝐙𝐞𝐚𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐝
Belgium defence stifles the Black Sticks in the 2nd half to enter the semi-finals as they attempt to go back-to-back at the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cups! #HWC2023
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) January 24, 2023
McLeod says Wegnez is one of Belgium’s fastest short sprinters and courageous players, the qualities needed for a first rusher. “We saw his skill set. He was very fast so that put him in a category of ‘if you are keen to develop this further, we are keen to develop you’,” McLeod says. “It was a combination of him wanting to be helpful and us seeing his skill-set fitted what we needed.”
It fits in perfectly. At this World Cup, Belgium are yet to concede from penalty corners and Wegnez has taken half-a-dozen blows while successfully trying to stop the ball from going in.
“I never complain (about) the pain and getting hit by the ball. It’s also a job I have to do to be in the team,” he says. “It’s not something that anybody can do but you just need to be brave and accept that the ball is going to hit you and it’s going to be painful. (But) I am pretty proud to take all those balls because it means I am helping the team.”
Australia, Belgium in semis
Tokyo Olympics finalists Australia and Belgium remained on course to meet in the World Cup final as well after both teams won their respective quarterfinals in a contrasting fashion on Tuesday.
Australia survived a massive scare after they were pushed to the limit by a resilient Spain, who missed a penalty stroke with minutes left to play, handing their rivals a hard-fought 5-4 win. In the semis, they will face the winner of the quarterfinal between England and Germany.
Belgium, on the other hand, were never troubled by New Zealand, who defeated India in a crossover match last Sunday. The reigning champions won the match 2-0 to set up a clash with either the Netherlands or South Korea.
Playing on Wednesday (Quarterfinals)
4.30 pm: England vs Germany
7 pm: Netherlands vs South Korea
Live on Star Sports Network