Spain, after their 2-2 draw against New Zealand on Thursday, were placed third in Pool A of the Hockey World Cup. Argentina, with two wins in two games, were first. New Zealand, with a win and a draw, were third. France, with a draw and a defeat, were fourth. France, the lowest-ranked team of the tournament, were expected to maintain status quo of Pool A by losing to Olympic champions Argentina in the group’s final game and make a silent exit from the tournament.

They, instead, caused a tectonic shift. They made the ones that missed the match rub their eyes whilst checking its result. They laughed at the conservative punters who placed their bets on Argentina, ranked 18 places higher. They reminded the world that rankings, reputation and the past in sports matter less than belief, courage and the present. They put a smile on the faces of the underdog rooters. They smiled.

France isn’t a nation that has a rich hockey legacy. Last time they participated in an Olympics was nearly half a century ago. They last featured in a World Cup in 1990. And, their last appearance in a major multi-nation tournament was the Champions Trophy of 1992.

“Team showed it [on Thursday] that with our work, even if you don’t have 100,000 hockey players, you can still achieve a dream – to reach the next round after beating Olympic champions at a World Cup stadium in front of a crowd like this, I think it’s a dream come true for everyone,” said France’s coach Jeroen Delmee after the win against Argentina.

The 5-3 margin proves that France’s win wasn’t a fluke. But it wasn’t a result of France being good on a night. It’s to be attributed to days of toil. It’s a by-product of French hockey’s long-term, collective vision.

The French hockey project

The French Hockey Federation (FFH), this year, devised the ‘Ambition Hockey 2024’ project to nurture the sport and its players ahead of the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

The French captain Victor Charlet and coach Delmee alluded to this long-term vision after the win against Argentina.

“We want to stay in top quality to play the World Cup and Olympics. We have to keep this group for a long time to do big things and play big tournaments,” said Charlet.

“Hockey in France is not that big,” said coach Delmee. “We have to use the talent that’s there and ensure that these boys stay together. Besides that, we also have some other young players. If you look at our frontline, we have one player who is 18 and two guys that are 19. If you are 19, you play a match like this, then you will get better and better. That’s what we need to achieve our goals in the future.”

Delmee, a two-time Olympic gold medallist with the Netherlands (1996 and 2000), took over as the head coach of France last November. He’s played his part in the rise of France from No 31 in the world rankings last December to the 20th spot they’re at now.

“I am Dutch. There we have big hockey population, so you don’t need that many players. Your programme has to be good. If you compare to Belgium, their programme has been good for 10-15 years. That produces a high-quality team” he said.

Inspiration from Belgium

The success story of Belgium hockey has been a big inspiration for France’s ‘Ambition Hockey 2024’. In the 1980s, Belgian hockey nosedived to its nadir. From 1980 to 2004, Belgium failed to qualify for the Olympics. In this period, they never managed a top-10 finish in the World Cup.

In 2006, Belgian hockey devised a programme, ‘Be Gold’, which focused on nurturing young talent with a long-term plan. It took a while to come to fruition but the progress was steady: in 2008, Belgium qualified for the Olympics (in Beijing) after a 32-year gap; in 2012 (in London), they finished fifth and in 2016 (in Rio de Janerio) they won a historic silver medal.

The FFH wants to do something similar. Specifically, it expects its national men’s side to finish among the top-five teams in the 2024 Olympics and its women’s side to finish among the top-10.

Top-8 finishes in the 2022 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, according to the federation, will be indicators of their vision’s realisation. With another win against China on Monday, France can achieve this target four years earlier.