Hockey’s French evolution begins

Timothee Clement's hat-trick helps the unheralded colts from Europe, shock India 5-4 in the Junior World Cup opener.

If there was any evidence needed that France could be international hockey’s big story of this decade, somewhat like Belgium did in the decade that went by, it came on a breezy Wednesday night in Bhubaneswar. Never mind that it came at India’s cost.

In December 2011, a youthful Belgium team defeated India for the first time, a result that announced their arrival on the world stage. France’s stunning 5-4 win over India in the opening match of their Pool B encounter of the Junior World Cup might not seem like a similar watershed moment right now. But it points to the European side’s constant improvement, to the point that they will no longer be considered minnows going forward.

France’s upswing started at the same venue at the 2018 World Cup, where a ragtag bunch of players reached the quarterfinals. Timothee Clement, the youngest player of that team, was one of their heroes back then. Clement, the oldest player on this side, was their hero on Wednesday as well. The 21-year-old put up a heroic performance, scoring a hat-trick and making crucial clearances, including an unbelievable goal-line save, to lead his side to this famous win.

But more than the result, it was the way France went about it that was more impressive. And Graham Reid had seen it coming.

France, he had gathered from the limited footage that was available, played ‘like a European team’ – held the ball, moved quickly and attacked from the right. The India coach could not have been more accurate in reading his opponent’s game plan. Yet, the team couldn’t stop them from executing it.

To be fair to Reid, he’s only been with this side for a month or so. India’s junior team had been coached by BJ Kariappa for the last couple of years after Jude Felix left. Then, as they did just before the 2016 Junior World Cup where Roelant Oltmans was given the charge of a team that was coached by Harendra Singh, Reid was asked to take over the team this time, with Kariappa as his assistant.

Reid had been understanding enough to not tinker a lot although he admitted before the tournament that he didn’t really know a lot about the players, or the way they played. In truth, very few knew.

Limited playing time

Before Wednesday, India’s junior team hadn’t had a competitive international match for almost two years. And for the last year or so, they had virtually become a simulation machine for the Tokyo-bound team. To help prepare the seniors, who too were starved of competitive matches, for the Olympics, the under-21s were made to play like India’s opponents – Germany one day, Belgium the other and so on.

Reid didn’t believe the simulation affected their playing style – “they were still trying to play their own game,” he said. But juniors lacked co-ordination and made many uncharacteristic errors. Perhaps, they were just rusty because of the lack of match practice.

There were mis-traps galore and the long balls were not controlled. Unlike the senior team, where a player holds the ball for three to five seconds at best before passing, the colts embarked on long, at times aimless, runs that spoiled the team’s structure.

France were shrewd to take advantage of India’s mistakes. But they didn’t rely only on that. From the very first minute, France took matters into their own hands, launching wave after wave of attacks and being breathtakingly strong on the ball – moving it quickly to the right, slicing open India’s defence and raiding the goal. They were quick off the blocks in each quarter and made that count – their goals coming moments after restart each time.

This win puts them in pole position to top the group and get a favourable draw for the quarterfinals.

For India, there’s still enough time to turn this around. Despite the loss, it wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. There were a few bright spots.

Not all gloomy

Penalty corner specialist Sanjay showed why he is tipped to take the spot vacated by Rupinderpal Singh in the senior side. He generated plenty of pace in his drag-flicks and was able to find corners, making it tough for the goalkeeper to get near the ball. His hat-trick (15’, 57’, 58’) kept India alive in the match until the last minute.

The performance of the forward line, too, will encourage Reid. Araijeet Singh Hundal, Sudeep Chirmako and Maninder Singh opened up the French defence quite easily, and repeatedly. Hundal was impressive in particular with his long strides and probing runs but India lacked the sharpness. A couple of shots hit the post and one went across, which left the team ruing.

And lest it be forgotten that even at the Tokyo Olympics, India scripted a turnaround after losing 7-1 to Australia early in their campaign. If anything, the defeat to France complicates India’s title defence. At the same time, it asserts France’s status as world hockey’s next big thing.

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