A Dutchman marshalling the French troops plotted Argentina’s downfall and eliminated Spain. Finally, it feels like a World Cup. And it took an upset of historic proportions to make that possible.
Till tonight, the tournament was ambling along. Not much was happening really – the favourites were struggling but winning and the goals weren’t flowing as they should in hockey. In the space of 70 minutes, that changed. And it began with Kiwi resurgence.
New Zealand, looking flat and insipid, were down by two goals after three quarters against Spain, a scenario that benefited both teams. If it stayed like that, both teams would’ve gone through to the crossovers and France would’ve been eliminated. But what is World Cup without any drama? Two New Zealand goals in a span of six minutes changed the dynamics of Pool A, as Spain were held to a 2-2 draw, leaving the door slightly ajar for France.
As the final hooter buzzed, Jeroen Delmee gathered his players in a huddle. Delmee, a Dutch legend who is now the coach of France, didn’t give a dramatic Chak de India like ‘sattar minute’ like speech, but he mustered as much conviction as he could and said: ‘Boys, this is our chance to create history.’
Delmee said he hoped the team would react to his silent war cry. One wonders, though, if he would’ve thought they would respond like this. France, the World Cup’s lowest-ranked team, stunned Olympic champions Argentina 5-3 in a performance that reasserts the theory that the gap between the world’s best and the rest is getting increasingly closer.
It might have been a freak result, assisted by the complacency within the Argentine group that ‘switched off’ a bit after they were assured of a direct quarterfinal berth, but its significance cannot be missed. “This is our biggest, most important result. No doubt,” midfielder Francois Goyet says. “This moment can change French hockey.”
Goyet might sound as a man overcome with emotions, but he isn’t much off mark. France are a nobody in world hockey. Nobody, in fact, cares much about the sport in a country that’s obsessed with football. It’s a team of semi-professionals, most of whom play club hockey in Belgium but work full-time in France. They came to India to compete at the World Cup, but their sights are firmly set on the Olympics in Paris, six years on. Of course, the World Cup mattered in the overall scheme of things, but few – not even the ever-optimistic Delmee – would’ve imagined something like this.
Through the course of this World Cup and in the days leading up to the tournament, every decision they’ve taken is keeping Paris 2024 in mind. Even in their interviews, they’ve spoken more about being competitive at the home Olympics than achieving something substantial here.
Recently, the French federation signed an agreement with Hockey India, wherein their women’s team will travel to India every year for the next six years for a short preparatory camp in the build up to the Olympics.
“Last year, we started a strategy called Ambition Hockey 2024. The main point is we must be competitive in 2024. We don’t just want to play, but finish at the good position. We expect a podium from the men,” France hockey federation’s president Olivier Moreau said minutes before the push-back.
This result will only add further impetus to their development. And they have a solid base to build on. France had shown in their two matches before tonight that they are no pushovers. The manner in which they played belied their world ranking of 20.
They were fast and often direct with their attacks. Delmee, who won two Olympic gold medals with Holland, has instilled a Dutch-like discipline in their defensive structure and on Thursday, they showed flair – albeit in patches – that’s often associated with the European giants. And a couple of goals they scored proved they are a side that isn’t short of creativity and courage – Aristide Coisne’s unbelievable lob over Argentine goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi was a piece of art.
France will have to play a crossover against the third-placed team of Pool B. Suddenly, they’ve gone from being minnows to a side no one would want to face.