Emotional France make hockey history in Bhubaneswar

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It's not often a player gets to be part of history. So when the French hockey team was finally certain that they had beaten the reigning Olympic champions Argentina 5-3 in a madcap match at the World Cup, they made the most of it.

They had 'only' just reached the crossover phase, still one win away from a place in the quarterfinal, but it's still further than any French team had ever gone in the history of competition. And so, the players celebrated as if they had won it all. They hugged and piled on each other, pumping their fists in celebration towards the near capacity crowd at the Kalinga stadium.

Even when players finally calmed down enough to explain the feeling, the words barely came to them. Was this their country's finest achievement on a hockey field?

"Ever? Probably," goalkeeper Arthur Thieffry answers after a deep pause. "To be honest. I don't really know."

France, at 20th, are the lowest ranked of the 16 teams in this competition, and were expected to only make up the numbers in Bhubaneswar. They are upfront about it, too. They are looking at the big picture, as the #Paris2024 bio on their official twitter handle suggests.

Spain, Argentina and New Zealand, all former Olympic champions, were heavily favoured to make the next round of matches from Pool A. Based on that alone, France have already exceeded expectations.

After a loss in their opening match against New Zealand, they managed to hold Spain to a draw. France even had a chance to beat them but scuffed a penalty stroke. After New Zealand and Spain had played out a draw earlier on Thursday, France had to beat Argentina if they were to go through. In the end, France qualified at Spain's expense.

Going into a match, the coaches of underdog teams always ask their players to believe they can achieve the unexpected. Yet, even Jeroen Delmee, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Holland, seemed taken aback.

"You hope they perform like this. That's what you ask them for," he would say later. "To write history for France hockey. There are moments that a player remembers when they end their career. That time in India when they beat the Olympic champions. This is one of those moments."

Perhaps Argentina were a bit casual, having already qualified for the quarterfinals. "We were already thinking about the next round," captain Pedro Ibarra said after the game. France, though, gave it their all. "Perhaps if we had only to draw we might have played differently. But we had to win so we played like that," Delmee said.

They defended resolutely, saving two penalty corners taken by Gonzalo Peilat in the first quarter before exploding with a four-goal second quarter. Argentina would pull one back, but it was a fantasy hockey level scorecard at half time. Peillat would then show just why he's the best drag flicker in the world, scoring in the third and early in the final quarter.

It was a moment where the match could have swung cruelly away from the French. This is a young team with an average age of 24.6 years and with just five of their squad having played over a hundred games.

"It could have slipped away from us. In the past team had trouble balancing emotions. We had been losing games because we played emotionally," Delmee said.

There would be no buckling under pressure this time around. With minutes to go, Francois Goyet would find an inch perfect deflection to restore the two-goal cushion that would stay with France until the final whistle.

Despite their special evening, Delmee is realistic about France's prospects. "The best teams in the world are of course Australia, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and India. But among the teams ranked between 8 and 12 in the world there is not much difference. We think we can compete there."

But who would want to limit them to that, after seeing their performance against Argentina? Even Delmee allows himself to dream, just a little.

"If we continue to play above ourselves, we can achieve some very strange things."