Till Thursday, nobody took them seriously. Ranked 20th, they are virtually at the bottom of the hockey hierarchy, and the two league matches before they clashed with Olympic champions Argentina, didn’t do their reputation any good. They lost to New Zealand and drew against Spain.
But Thursday changed everyone’s perception about the 18-member squad, which is part of a very small hockey community in the land of football. France, playing in their third hockey World Cup after 1971, and 1990, defeated the No 2 side Argentina 5-3.
France-Argentina rivalry in football is a known fact. But the same rivalry on a hockey pitch evoked only sneers. Until Thursday, that it. They demolished Argentina to keep their hopes alive in the tournament.
“Before coming here, whenever we talked about the World Cup with friends in France, their first reaction used to be ‘are you talking about the football World Cup?’. For people back home, only one World Cup exists, and that was held in Russia this year. They have reasons to remember the 2018 World Cup; France won the title. So, you can well understand where hockey figures in France with barely a thousand people playing the sport,” said Fabienne van Straaten, the mother of twins, Pieter and Niels. Pieter is part of the French hockey team, while Niels is in the reserves. The Fabienne couple is in Bhubaneswar for the World Cup.
France will play China in the ‘crossover’ on December 10, for a berth in the quarter-finals.
French skipper Victor Charlet has 100 international caps but had to struggle to tell people that hockey also exists in France. “When I tell friends I play hockey, they either steer away from conversation or make faces as if they are clueless. Sometimes they come up with weird queries like ‘Do you play with sticks and a small ball? Why do you play with the small ball? What’s the ball made of? Is it a chicken ball?’ I hope with our performance here, we can get some respect for our sport in the football-crazy country,” said Victor.
France’s journey to Bhubaneswar started in New Delhi in 2013, when they competed in the junior World Cup. It was the first time France won a hockey medal — silver — at the world level, losing to Germany.
“More than half-a-dozen players from the 2013 batch are part of the current team. That medal gave us confidence,” said Pieter, a member of the 2013 junior World Cup squad. “Our aim now is to be among the top-10 in the world and after that we are eyeing something big in the 2024 Paris Olympics. That would be the turning point for hockey in France,” said coach Jeroen Delmee.
France doesn’t have a professional hockey structure. There are a few clubs and most top players play club hockey in Belgium or Holland. The current bunch of 20 — 18-member squad and two reserves — has eight students pursuing degrees in medicine, law, music and gardening architecture, among others.
“You can’t depend on hockey for a livelihood in France. There are a couple of players making a living by playing club hockey in Belgium,” said Pieter.
Because of logistic issues and limited funding, France had two World Cup training camps running simultaneously in Paris and Brussels. For three weeks, they trained at their respective venues and then in the fourth week converged at Lille on the northern tip of France bordering Belgium for a joint camp.
“About 12-13 players trained in Belgium and the rest in Paris. In the fourth week of every month, we travelled to Lille for combined training,” said Gaspard Baumgarten. “Lille has a special place in our hearts,” added Pieter.
Three players playing for France are Belgian, while one is Dutch, but since one of their parents is French, they enjoy dual citizenship, making them eligible to play for France. Charles Manson, Nicolas Dumont and Maximilien Branicki have dual nationality with Belgium, while Pieters’ dual nationality is with Holland.
First Published: Dec 09, 2018 19:25 IST
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