By Rod Gilmour
‘Hockey sur gazon’ – field hockey as we know it – has been a rare commodity in L’Equipe, France’s daily sports newspaper, in recent years.
But for the first time, since perhaps 2013 when France unexpectedly reached the final of the Junior World Cup, the sport has made a welcome return – and with some aplomb.
That’s because France, the world No 20 men’s side, put up some stout resistance against world No 7 England in two World Cup warm-up matches in Lille this week.
France, coached by Dutchman Jeroen Delmee, were leading 3-2 in a Test match on Tuesday evening thanks to a penalty corner hat-trick from captain Victor Charlet before lapsing in the final minutes as England scraped home 4-3.
England Hockey has a policy not to report non-capped matches. So it was left to the French federation to declare ‘Victoire!’ the following day, coupled with a report in L’Equipe on Thursday as France then secured a memorable 2-1 win over Danny Kerry’s side.
Unfortunately, there was no sign of the live streaming promised on Tuesday, while the unofficial match on Wednesday bore no facts or line ups, so it would be remiss of The Hockey Paper to call this an ’embarrassing’ defeat against a team languishing below Austria in Egypt in the world rankings.
Furthermore, speak to coaches and responses invariably suggest that these pre-tournament matches are a chance to try out new tactics – or not give much away to the opposition ahead of more important games.
Still, France’s win – from a team on the rise – was their first since beating England in a friendly 30 years ago in Lille. Like this week, England had also won the previous day, in a year when Great Britain took preference due to it being their famous 1988 Olympic campaign.
“These two meetings showed that we were indeed able to compete with a world top nation. It is satisfactory even if there are details to be refined,” Charlet admitted to L’Equipe.
France’s recent rise is a fascinating, if under-reported, one and there will be several players on show at the upcoming World Cup who also featured in their run to the 2013 Junior World Cup final in New Delhi.
The Tricolores will next leave French shores at the end of the month for a 12-day tour to South Africa and four-Test series before travelling to India for the World Cup – you can find odds on the hockey here.
Back home, the Federation is currently outlining its agenda within France, having hired a communications agency to deliver ‘hockey sur gazon’ to the wider public, with the backdrop of the Paris 2024 Olympics coming into view.
L’Equipe had profiled the sport in a big feature last weekend, entitled ‘The not-so-insane mission of French hockey’. And judging by their on-field performances this week, the vision is far from crazy.
The FFH’s ‘Ambition Hockey 2024’, launched in March, is a multi-layered development plan: to double the number of players to 125,000 and 40 per cent women, to organise more international elite competitions and to increase its digital and media reach, as well as its own financial resources.
The Federation’s ambitious outlook stretches to the field, with an aim of “shining” at an Olympic Games. The men last participated at the 1972 Munich Games, while the women’s team has yet to qualify.
“The Olympics in France are a great opportunity to develop and create a collective movement,” Olivier Moreau, president of the FFH, told a business briefing in Paris on Thursday.
“This is the moment where we have to aim high. If we want to see the boys on the podium in Paris, and the girls in the Top 10, it is now that we must make headway.”
Next month’s World Cup will at least allow France to showcase themselves once again on the world stage – and where they need to be in six years time in Paris.