Pieter van Straaten studies in Holland, works in Belgium and plays hockey for France all over the world. The 26-year-old is half-Dutch, half-French and represented the Netherlands internationally till the under-16 level before switching allegiance. And while he is here in Bhubaneswar playing at the World Cup right now, around this time next week, he’ll be back in Haarlem, studying music production.
While Van Straaten is learning the art of creating music, his teammate Tom Genestet is an expert in producing wine. Genestet, 31, is the most-capped player in the French team, having made 174 international appearances. But on days when the midfielder isn’t scurrying around hockey fields, Genestet is scavenging vineyards across France, supervising the spirit’s journey from grape to glass.
Genestet is a wine merchant, who works 12 hours a day at his bar apart from a couple of hours of training. His wine bar in Saint-Germain near Paris is where French players hang out on most weekends, watching matches and discussing strategies. “And emptying several bottles of really good wine,” Van Straaten adds. Next week, Ballon Rouge – Genestet’s bar – will be the venue for a grand celebration.
France have been the story of this World Cup so far. The tournament’s lowest-ranked team gave New Zealand a mighty scare, held European heavyweights Spain to a draw and stunned Olympic champions Argentina to qualify for the crossovers, where they edged out China. On Wednesday, they’ll play their biggest match ever. France, ranked 20th in the world, will take on World No.1 Australia for a place in the semifinals.
Mismatch on paper
On paper, it’s a mismatch of epic proportions – virtually like Vanuatu playing India in cricket. France are playing a World Cup after 28 years and in their two earlier appearances (1971 and 1990), they finished seventh. Australia are two-time defending champions; in fact, their 2014 winning team is arguably considered the best ever in the sport’s history. Because of a cash-crunch and geographical compulsions, French players train in two groups – one in Brussels, the other in Paris. Australian players train at one of the best facilities in the world in Perth all year long.
But the differences aren’t just restricted to statistics and structures alone.
The French are a rag-tag bunch, most of whom who play hockey only when they can manage some free hours from work or studies. It’s a squad with the most unique make-up: a vintner, an aspiring music producer, a marketing manager, a doctor, a lawyer and IT professionals.
Now, they must take on some of the best professionals in the business. “Our target was to get out of the pool,” says Maximilien Branicki. “We are now in bonus land.”
Branicki, 20, aspires to be a gymnastics coach. He is currently earning his coaching stripes from a university in Brussels, where he lives. Till a couple of years ago, Branicki played for Belgium’s youth teams. But he realised that he wasn’t good enough to play for the senior side. So, earlier this year, he switched from the blood-red Belgian jersey to the French blue.
“There are times when, during the day, I study in Brussels, then for training I go to Paris in the evening. It’s tough… it’s the life of a high-level sportsperson,” Branicki, who plays for Royal Oree, says.
“It’s strange, our team,” France captain Victor Charlet, a doctor by qualification, says with a smile. At 6-foot-5, Charlet is by far the tallest player in the World Cup. And among the tallest to have ever played the sport. Like most in France, Charlet’s initial sport of choice was football. But the sport, he says, didn’t suit his mentality. A school friend introduced him to hockey when he was 11, “and it made total sense to play the sport,” Charlet, who plays for Belgian club Waterloo, says. “The crowd is perfect and on the pitch, everyone is honest. It’s a strong and small sport – it’s a family thing.”
Charlet gets his hockey stick custom-made since most in the common market are too short for him. He uses a hockey stick that is 38.5 inches long, a couple of inches more than the average height.
The height gives him a distinct advantage – “I can impose myself on attackers” – but it’s when he runs that Charlet looks the most menacing. He’s like a tank, rolling over everything that comes in his way.
Australia may be a bridge too far for France, but weirder things have happened in sport. “Who knows!” wonders Genestet. “I will throw a big party for the players in my wine bar, regardless of what happens.”
EXPLAINED: France is better than what rankings show
At 20, France, the tournament’s lowest-ranked team has been the biggest revelation, defying world rankings to gatecrash their way into the top eight. Their ranking, however, is hardly a reflection of the quality they possess.
One of the main reasons for France being ranked below the likes of China (17) and continuously missing Olympics and World Cups is the confederation they compete in. Europe is the most competitive group in world hockey, home to heavyweights like Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and England as well as emerging sides like Ireland. They’ve had an occasional result or two against these teams, but to repeat it consistently has been a challenge.
The routine defeats stunt their progress in world rankings, which in turn renders them ineligible for major international tournaments, where a place is awarded to continental champions or according to world rankings. Bhubaneswar 2018 can be a turning point in that sense, as they are sure to climb up the ranking ladder, which might make qualification process relatively smoother.