BHUBANESWAR: Ambition Hockey 2024. It's the mission document of the Federation Francaise de Hockey's (FFH). It consists of the exact steps the Federation aims to take in their bid for achieving glory in the sport when they host the Olympics in 2024.
Well, they are on course to achieve that. At the Kalinga Stadium on Wednesday, November 25, 2021, they served notice of their unquestionable talent with a 5-4 win over India on the opening day of the Junior World Cup.
Three years after a motley crew of men comprising doctors and musicians among others took down then Olympic champions, Argentina, 5-3, at the senior World Cup, the juniors claimed a more impressive victory.
50 seconds in, the scoreboard read: India 0-1 France. In fact, the first meaningful thing the hosts did in the match was to retrieve the ball from the back of the net. Even as the volunteers and guests were still adjusting to the realities of watching top-level hockey in a largely empty stadium thanks to the tournament being played in a bio-bubble setting, it was India 0-2 France with 53 minutes remaining.
Teething troubles, though, were to be expected. India, of course, hadn't played a fixture in over two years. Their last competitive men's Under-21 match was the final of the Sultan of Johor Cup on October 19, 2019. Since then, the junior programme has faced multiple challenges including multiple coaches as well as a pandemic.
And, for a period of time, the junior team's role was reduced to help the seniors prepare for the Olympics. Rather than be themselves, they had to ape the tactics of elite opposition teams like Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands so that the seniors would be well prepared heading into Tokyo. Chief coach Graham Reid, though, rejected the notion that this had an impact in the outcome of the match. "They were still trying to play their own game," he said after the match. "Yes, we were asking them to play like Germany and all but they were still trying."
That the opening two goals came via quick interchange and passing wasn't unexpected. In the pre-match press conference, the Australian had noted that France is a solid side that breaks very quickly. What was, unexpected, though was the hosts were a touch slow to react. They had done their homework yet took time to adjust to France's quick transitions.
In fact, France's second goal came as a result of a very quick counter attack. Captain Vivek Sagar Prasad lost the ball in the opposition third. Less than five seconds later, India picked the ball out of their own net.
On the other hand, France was well organised, knew what to expect and, more importantly, what to do. They were of course aided and abetted by a team that, at times, looked like they were playing their first-ever international match at this level -- that statement is largely true for half this side but Reid didn't want to use that an excuse.
However, he did concede that they made a few basic errors. "Very hard to give a team five goals and expect a win. I thought we created enough opportunities. On the scoreboard, we didn't. We made some basic errors, trapping, some of the overheads, shots at goal, our shots hit the post a couple of times... we need more pressure on the ball, didn't do that enough." They did bag two goals in the last five minutes to set up a frantic finale but France held on.
The onus is now on the team management to put this loss behind them because they can now ill-afford a loss in their second group game, against Canada on Thursday. If they are beaten, then they may well be in danger of bowing out of the World Cup two days into the tournament.
For France, it's 60 minutes that will take them even closer to Ambition Hockey.
Pool A: Belgium 5-1 South Africa, Malaysia 2-1 Chile
Pool B: Canada 0-1 Poland, India 4-5 France
Pool D: Germany 5-2 Pakistan
Pool D: Argentina vs Egypt 9.30 AM,
Pool C: Netherlands vs Korea 12.00 PM, Spain vs USA 2.30 PM
Pool B: France vs Poland 5.00 PM, Canada vs India 7.30 PM