More hockey players, but no new world titles for a quarter of a century

More hockey players, but no new world titles for a quarter of a century

June 1, 1998: The Netherlands is the world champion of hockey. Teun de Nooijer has scored the winning goal in the World Cup final.Getty Images

Former hockey great Stephan Veen won two Olympic gold medals, but for him those titles cannot reach the memorable hockey of the 1998 World Cup in the football stadium of FC Utrecht. ‘That World Cup was the best competition I’ve ever played in,’ says Veen, the captain at the time. ‘Everything was fine. The selection structure, the coaching staff which was put together by the wonderful environment.’

Led by national coach Roelant Oltmans, the Netherlands won the world title after Teun de Nooijer’s golden goal in the final against Spain. The award was a precursor to unprecedented membership growth. Within five years, membership had grown from 127,000 to 204,000. Since then it has increased further, to around 250,000 now. Hockey is the sixth largest sports association (after football, tennis, sport fishing, golf and gymnastics).

The increase in membership created a strange paradox. However popular hockey was, the success of 1998 was not repeated in the men’s field. The world title of a quarter century ago is still the last.

About the author
Natasja Weber orders from the Volkskrant about Olympic sports such as hockey, swimming and equestrian sports.

poop game

A good performance in 1998 (the women won silver) was fundamental in the hockey association. For almost two weeks there were many daily TV broadcasts of the World Cup. The friendly atmosphere at the stadiums, where officials watched in amazement as hockey fans cleaned their glasses, spread to the living rooms. Many non-hockey players were also in front of the pipe.

That was no accident, says Johan Wakkie, general manager at the time. When he was drafted in late 1993, he already had big plans for hockey. Hockey was still a shit game. In terms of membership, the game had been stagnant for twenty years with about 125,000 members. I told the board: Even golf is catching up with us and tennis is long gone. We’re going to turn the tent upside down and do big hockey in the Netherlands.’

His main effort was to provide a special solution to the parties and a new funding policy. The wishes of the parties became the leading. They wanted to keep young people for a long time, new fields of artificial grass or corporate hockey. Wakkie: ‘From a good union we have become a trade union.’

For financial resources, the hockey association found sponsors such as Rabobank, Volvo and Shell. Wakkie: ‘We concluded sponsorship deals for eight years: four years before the 1998 World Cup and four years after. Local Rabobank branches became an important player in financing the synthetic pitches and local Volvo dealers entered into agreements with the parties.’

This policy has been important for the growth of members, says sports sociologist Prof. Dr. Maarten Bottenburg. In the past he has shown that special sports shows rarely lead to more actors: the so-called Epke or Ard and Keessie effect does not exist. The same goes for hockey. “The increase in membership in the hockey association was not a major effect of the World Cup, but more of a policy followed.”

Van Bottenburg: ‘The World Cup came at the perfect time and had the power to show that we are no longer an elite sport. In the 1990s, many people felt not at home in soccer clubs, the membership of the KNVB stabilized, and hockey presented itself as a safe place for boys and girls. The biggest growth was therefore among the youth.’


Doubling the membership base was no guarantee of further success. While women have already won four world titles this century alone, the number of world titles for men is still three (1973, 1990, 1998). The last Olympic title dates back to 2000. It’s a disappointing fact that he repeatedly returns to the World Cup and Olympic Games. With World Cup silver in 2014 and 2018 and Olympic silver twice (2004 and 2012), the men often missed out on the top prize.

In terms of prizes, the Netherlands has even been surpassed by Belgium, which became the Olympic and world champion with almost a third of the number of participants: almost 50,000. This success was made possible in part by the Netherlands. The Belgians copied the Dutch model for high hockey and attracted Dutch national coaches. Many of Belgium’s top players chose exciting opportunities in the Dutch top flight, the world’s strongest competition.

Are foreigners part of the problem? Are they hindering the development of Dutch talent? Stephan Veen does not think so, although he is afraid of many foreigners in the team. He would prefer to see a maximum of, for example, four foreigners per team if the restriction does not conflict with European regulations.

Veen: ‘As long as a few top foreign players are playing in the team, I see it as good. They give pride to the big league and the young Dutch talents can learn from them. I am sure that the hockey players who qualify for the Dutch national team will demand their place.’

Enough high talents

The former captain sees no difference between the growth of the game of hockey, which results in a larger pool of talent development, and the lack of international titles among men. “It is not about numbers. You will also find many amateur athletes in the growing population of hockey. It is about high-quality talent and there are still many in the Netherlands. But do we choose, along with quality and physical strength, also for players who think independently who are fully committed?’

Former national coach Roelant Oltmans also sees a lot of talent. The problem, he says, is in the mindset. He wonders aloud if the players aren’t that good these days. ‘In 1998 we had a few guys like Stephan Veen, Jacques Brinkman and Ronald Jansen who told their teammates straight to their faces how it was. Difficult, but always with the right intentions. Now it seems difficult if one is direct.’

Oltmans thinks that it is often too easy to think that the Netherlands will ‘just win the world title’. ‘You have to look at it longer: in fifty years we have been world champions three times. And in the history of the Olympic Games we have won twice, luckily twice in a row in 1996 and 2000.’ According to Veen, the period between 1990 and 2000 was exceptional: two world titles and two Olympic titles. ‘That should not be seen as decisions.’

When asked why hockey players have been dry for a long time in the international view, Veen and Oltmans do not have an answer yet. Veen points out that some factors are important in achieving success. ‘Reliable defensive structure, creative ability in the team, good interaction with the staff, a bit of luck and players who wake up when things are exciting.’

Mental strength

Veen himself was able to bring out the best in him at critical moments. ‘Jacques Brinkman was also at his best when it came down to it and Ronald Jansen stopped a crucial penalty on more than one occasion. You have to have a few guys in the team who are mentally strong and who are there when needed.’

Oltmans agrees. “All the boys are fit and very strong, but it’s close to the end: what’s between the ears? In the Netherlands, things often go wrong in the penalty shootout at the final championship. You have to pay more attention to that by default . Do you shoot on shaky knees or with one hundred percent conviction? At least I haven’t seen that conviction in recent years.’