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Junior Hockey World Cup: Losses to Baby Bleus bookend French ascent, Indian jr deficiencies

India lose third-place Junior World Cup match 3-1 to the French.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Bhubaneswar |
Updated: December 6, 2021 8:48:04 am
When France defeated India in the opening group-stage match, it was seen as the biggest upset of the competition. But after they won the third-place playoff on Sunday 3-1, it seemed like the most obvious result. (Twitter/Hockey India)

India’s Junior World Cup campaign ended just the way it began: heads in their hands, on their knees and jubilant French players dancing and celebrating around them.

When France defeated India in the opening group-stage match, it was seen as the biggest upset of the competition. But after they won the third-place playoff on Sunday 3-1, it seemed like the most obvious result. What wasn’t so obvious was the outcome of the final. It was stunning, the manner in which Argentina outwitted six-time Junior World Cup winners Germany 4-2 in a final for the ages.

Both results hold a lot of significance going forward, giving a glimpse into the teams that could challenge those on the top of the pile.

After their senior side won the Rio Olympics gold medal, Argentine hockey seemed to have lost its way a little in the last few years. But the current bunch of players – coached by Lucas Rey, their Rio Olympics hero who is now becoming their messiah – have sparked hopes of a revival, the way the 2016 junior title became a springboard for India going forward.

Compared to the final, the consolation third-place match at World Cups is much-maligned, often considered a second-class event. At times, however, it can also define tournaments. And Sunday’s game between India and France felt like that.

Colt from Les Bleus

France symbolise all things that are going right in international hockey, which at the moment seems so competitive that any of the top-eight sides can beat the other on their day – and the Junior World Cup has shown that it will remain that way for a foreseeable time.

In 2013, when Les Bleus – to borrow the moniker associated with their football team, finished as the runners-up behind Germany, it heralded a new era for them. A lot of those players went onto form the core of the senior team, which made waves at the 2018 World Cup.

The money pumped into French hockey, in lieu of the Paris Olympics, meant that their performance three years ago wasn’t a one-off. France have continued to punch above their weight in Europe and recently secured qualification for the 2023 World Cup, making it rare back-to-back appearances for them in what is the biggest event on the hockey calendar after the Olympics.

The performance of their under-21 side will give them hope that their rise will continue unabated.

France were easily the more dominant of the two teams in the third-place match. They bossed the midfield, sliced through the Indian defence with utmost ease and cleverness, and showed a lot of energy right from the time the anthems were played. It helped their cause that the defending champions never turned up for the game.

Timothee Clement – remember the name – scored a hat-trick from penalty corners, taking his tally to 14 in the tournament, four behind the top-scorer Miles Bukkens of the Netherlands. A lot of France’s plan revolves around getting Clement into the game by rushing forward and winning penalty corners. And when they earned them – more than a dozen on Sunday – Clement is always threatening with his power and placement.

France’s third-place finish also points at the depth in European hockey. While the usual suspects have been winning all the important tournaments, teams like Wales – who scripted a remarkable tale to qualify for the 2023 World Cup and a slightly-stagnating Ireland underlines Europe’s strength.

A challenge from South America

With this in mind, Argentina’s triumph becomes significant.

Victories at junior level don’t necessarily translate into senior success but Sunday’s win comes as a timely booster shot for Argentine hockey. Los Leones, as they are called, have been on a downward spiral of sorts since winning gold at the Rio Olympics.

One of the reasons for that, according to their former senior captain and U-21 team coach Lucas Rey, was the internal problems at a federation level. It led to a constant chopping and changing of coaches, and some of their key players, including star drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat, fell out of favour. This showed in their performances, with the team finishing a poor seventh at both, the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Olympics.

Rey, an Argentine legend, has taken it upon himself to revitalise their hockey. Under him, the team was surprisingly good, playing with an equal measure of creativity and cunningness. Argentina will try to ensure a smooth transition of these players into the senior fold, with the hope to make them a force once again.

Argentina’s presence at the top will be crucial for world hockey, given that Australia and India are the only two countries apart from them to constantly challenge the European dominance on the field.

Ominous signs for Asia

This brings us to Asia, where the teams are falling behind the rest of the hockey world at an alarming rate.

One thing that the Junior World Cup proved – if any further proof was needed – was the downfall of South Korea and Pakistan, once a continental force but now a pale shadow of their past. While Pakistan, who still showed some skills but lacked severely in fitness, will pin their hopes on the new foreign coach, Siegfried Aikman, things look ominous for South Korea, where hockey has been rapidly declining in the priority list.

Malaysia continue to punch above their weight, as they showed with a spirited draw against Belgium in the group stage. But the gap between India and the rest of Asia, even at a junior level, seems widening. This, despite the fact that this was one of the most under-prepared Indian teams of recent times.

India’s inexperience showed throughout the competition, starting and ending with the games against France. On Sunday, the players were guilty of making some basic blunders, including missed trapping, the inability to grasp the five-yard rule for aerial balls and going for solo efforts instead of playing smart hockey, especially inside France’s ‘D’.

In all their knockout matches – against Belgium in the quarterfinals, Germany in the semis and France in the playoff – India could not take advantage of their biggest asset, penalty corners. Figure this: in these three games, India could earn only five penalty corners from 58 circle penetrations while their opponents got 21 corners from 76 entries inside the ‘D’.

Penalty corners – both, defensive and offensive – were their undoing eventually on Sunday, just like it was in the opening match. India’s campaign ended the same way it began.

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