France have been one of the most improved men hockey teams over the last few years or so. The hugely talented world number ten hockey outfit would be overwhelming favourites in the inaugural FIH Men’s Hockey Nations Cup that would be held at NWU Astro in Potchefstroom, South Africa, from November 28 to December 4. The FIH Men’s Hockey Nations Cup attaches a lot of significance not just for France but for the other seven participating teams – hosts South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, South Korea, Japan, Pakistan, and Canada – simply because the winner gets to play in the 2023-24 FIH Pro League.
Statistically speaking, France did finish eight among nine teams in the 2021-22 FIH Pro League but the kind of performance they showcased throughout the league, perhaps may did not reflect in the final scoreline. The Les Bleus shocked Olympic bronze medallists India 5-0 and made all and sundry know that there are a team that cannot touted as a pushover. The Frederic Soyex-coach French outfit dished out an eye-popping performance against the eventual 2021-22 FIH Pro League champions Netherlands, holding the Dutch to a 2-2 draw before finishing second-best in the shootout – the Les Bleus even got the better of South American powerhouse and 2016 Rio Olympic champions Argentina 2-0.
The resilience of the French side stems from the battery of talent they have at their dispoal – full-back and drag-flicker Victor Charlet, the midfielder duo of Charles Masson and Viktor Lockwood besides young drag-flicking forward Timothy Clement and experienced and their most capped player, Gaspart Baumgarten bring so much to the French team table. Interestingly, Victor Charlet and Timothy Clement are among the top men hockey goal-scorers of 2022 with 14 goals each.
World number 16 and hosts South Africa is another side that can throw a serious challenge to France – they are richer with the 2021 Tokyo Olympics 2021-22 FIH Pro League stints. The green-and-white brigade have shown that they can upset the best in the business – at the Tokyo Olympics, the South Africans surprised many when they secured a 3-0 lead against the Netherlands in the first 18 minutes of play before going down 3-5 – the giant-killing reputation of South Africa was reinforced when they shocked mighty Germany 4-3 in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and stunned higher-ranked New Zealand by an identical scoreline in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. At the 2021-22 FIH Pro League, they drew 2016 Rio Olympic champions Argentina 2-2 but lost the shootout 1-2.
South Africa have a tenacious goalkeeper in Gowan Jones, who showed his class against India in the semifinal of the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. The world number 16 side have a fair bit of experince and young talents represented by fullback and drag-flicker Matt Guise-Brown, Jethro Eustice, Connor Beauchamp, Taine Paton. The forwardline is manned by Keenan Horne and Cassiem brothers – Dayaan and Mustaphaa, who are capable of troubling the best of defences.
Malaysia – the top ranked side in the tournament at number 10 – would be riding high after winning the maiden Sultan Azlan Shah Cup but they would not have it easy against the flair of France and South Africa. Pakistan would also looking to build on their bronze medal-win at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and seal a spot in the 2023-24 FIH Pro League. Under shrewd Dutch coach Siegfried Aikman the Greenshirts are doing the progress journey and a good stint in the FIH Men’s Hockey Nations Cup would do a world of good to this young side.
Asian powerhouses South Korea and Japan alongside Ireland and Canada would be competing for the lone spot available via the winner ticket for the 2023-24 FIH Pro League. Of course, modern hockey is synonymous with unpredictable results where anyone team can beat anyone irrespective of rankings, but the talent depth of France and to some extent, South Africa would be exciting to watch out for.