If any proof was needed that France could be the big story of international hockey of this decade, much like Belgium did in the decade that passed, it came on a breezy Wednesday night in Bhubaneswar. Never mind that it came at Indian expense.
In December 2011, a youthful Belgian team defeated India for the first time, a result that heralded their arrival on the world stage. France’s stunning 5-4 win over India in the opening game of their Pool B meeting of the Junior World Cup may not seem like a similar turning point at this point. But it points to the constant improvement of the European parties, to the point that they will no longer be considered minnows in the future.
Frances’ revival began at the same venue during the 2018 World Cup, where a sleazy group of players reached the quarter-finals. Timothee Clement, the youngest player on that team, was one of their heroes at the time. Clement, the oldest player on this side, was also their hero on Wednesday. The 21-year-old put in a heroic performance, scoring a hat-trick and making crucial distances, including an incredible save on the goal line, to lead his side to this famous victory.
But more than the result, it was the way France handled it that was more impressive. And Graham Reid had seen it coming.
An end-to-end encounter in Bhubaneswar ended in France’s favour, but not before India showed great fighting spirit.
Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) November 24, 2021
France, he had concluded from the limited footage available, played as if a European team were holding the ball, moving quickly and attacking from the right. India’s coach could not have been more accurate in reading his opponents’ game plan. Still, the team couldn’t stop them from doing it.
To be fair to Reid, he’s only been on this side for a month or so. India’s junior team has been coached by BJ Kariappa in recent years after Jude Felix left. Then, just before the 2016 World Junior Championships, where Roelant Oltmans was put in charge of a team coached by Harendra Singh, Reid was asked to take over the team this time, with Kariappa as his assistant.
Reid had been understanding enough not to tinker much, although he admitted before the tournament that he didn’t really know much about the players or the way they played. In reality, few knew.
Limited play time
Before Wednesday, Indias junior team had not had a competitive international match for nearly two years. And in the last year or so they had pretty much become a simulation machine for the team in Tokyo. To prepare the seniors, who were also starving from competitive competition, for the Olympics, the under-21s were made to play as India’s opponents Germany one day, Belgium the other day, 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 coordination and made many unusual mistakes. Maybe they were just rusty because of the lack of competition training.
There were many mis-traps 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 foals embarked on long, sometimes aimless runs that ruin the team structure.
The #JWC2021 got off to a brilliant start with lots of goals and some great hockey skills.
Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) November 24, 2021
France was smart to take advantage of India’s mistakes. But they didn’t rely on that alone. From the very first minute, France took matters into their own hands, launching wave after wave of attacks and breathtakingly strong on the ball, moving the ball quickly to the right, cutting open the Indian defense and looting the goal. They were quick off the blocks in every quarter and made that count for their goals coming every time after the restart.
This win puts them in pole position to lead the group and secure a favorable draw for the quarter-finals.
There is still plenty of time for India to turn this around. Despite the loss, it was not all doom and gloom. There were a few bright spots.
Not all gloomy
Penalty corner specialist Sanjay showed why he is being tipped to fill the position vacated by Rupinderpal Singh among the seniors. He generated a lot of pace in his drag flicks and was able to find corners, making it difficult for the keeper to get close to the ball. His hat-trick (15, 57, 58) kept India in the game until the last minute.
Frontline performance will also encourage Reid. Araijeet Singh Hundal, Sudeep Chirmako and Maninder Singh opened the French defense quite easily and repeatedly. Hundal was especially impressive with his long strides and penetrating runs, but India lacked the edge. A few shots hit the post and one shot went over, confusing the team.
Not to mention that even at the Tokyo Olympics, India came up with a reversal after losing 7-1 to Australia early in their campaign. Like anything, defeat to France complicates India’s title defense. At the same time, it confirms Frances’ status as the next big thing in world hockey.
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