Kookaburras lose Tokyo gold-medal shootout
The Kookaburras' quest for their first Olympic gold medal since 2004 has ended with a gutting penalty-shootout loss to fellow superpower Belgium in a pulsating Tokyo final.
Tom Wickham, a late addition to Australia's Olympic men's hockey squad in July, delivered a 47th-minute equaliser in the gold-medal decider.
The rivals remained locked at 1-1 after a frenzied finish to regular time, with goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch proving the hero in an eventful shootout that Belgium won 3-2.
Vanasch denied Blake Govers and Josh Simmonds then celebrated prematurely alongside teammates after Jake Whetton, taking Australia's fifth shot, failed to score.
The video umpire ruled Vanasch illegally erred, giving Whetton a chance to create a moment as iconic as Jamie Dwyer's extra-time goal that sealed the Kookaburras' gold at Athens 2004.
Vanasch bettered the inconsolable Whetton again, consigning the Kookaburras to silver.
"Everyone is a bit disappointed ... feel a bit numb," co-captain Eddie Ockenden told Seven at the end of his fourth Olympics.
"We came here to win. We didn't quite get there.
"Give us some extra time or something like that. The shootouts are tough."
Whetton's dramatic misses came straight after Andrew Charter, described by co-captain Aran Zalewski as being Australia's "rock" after his keeping heroics in a quarter-final shootout, was judged to have intentionally fouled Victor Wegnez.
Alexander Hendrickx, playing with six stitches in his head after last week's thunderous blow prompted a lot of blood loss and fears of a skull fracture, took the resultant penalty stroke and delivered Belgium's go-ahead goal in the shootout.
The result was a significant improvement on the Kookaburras' quarter-final loss at Rio 2016.
But they struggled to find such perspective after an epic contest between the world's No.1 and No.2 sides that was full of near-misses, amazing saves and momentum shifts.
"To lose in shootouts, it's never a good way," Zalewski said.
"We look fondly on that 2004 gold-medal game that went to extra time.
"It's a shame we didn't get to do that."
Vanasch, labelled a "great leader" and "from another planet" by Belgium coach Shane McLeod, revelled in his unique starring role.
"What a feeling, you become Olympic champion but twice," he said.
It was 18 months ago when Kookaburras coach Colin Batch declared Belgium were an Olympic "measuring stick" on the eve of two losses to the powerhouse in Sydney.
The COVID-19 pandemic then derailed Australia's Olympic preparations, with Ockenden and Zalewski admitting on Thursday that replacing international tune-ups with intra-squad games had been tough.
The Kookaburras nonetheless lifted for these Games, especially Charter.
The keeper produced four regular-time saves on Thursday before Florent van Aubel broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute.
Australia tested the woodwork and Vanasch while searching for an equaliser late in the third quarter.
Both sides had their moments while searching for a winning goal - a stretch that included a green card for Daniel Beale and a video referral with 4.3 seconds remaining - but Belgium were too composed in the one-on-ones.
Earlier on Thursday, Australian Graham Reid coached India to a thrilling 5-4 win over Germany in the bronze-medal match.
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