By Jugjet Singh
THE French women's hockey team are not Olympic contenders in Belgium, but their determination to play hockey is a story by itself.
They were one of the teams, including Malaysia, who received an invitation to replace Azerbaijan who disappeared in transit in Turkey.
And while Malaysia, Belarus and Chile turned it down due to distance and logistics -- the French women packed their bags in haste, put on a thin layer of make-up and dashed from their base in Lille to arrive in Antwerp still looking fresh and pretty in one hour and 30 minutes.
That was the easiest part of their journey to play the game they love most, but have yet to master.
Upon arrival, the French were mauled 11-0 by the Netherlands, and the very next day, they were hit 6-1 by Japan.
This scribe then met their coach Steven Colledge, an Australian, by chance and after a few drinks he opened up.
Colledge then told of how much they had to sacrifice when the International Hockey Federation (FIH) offered them the Azerbaijan slot.
First, they were lucky because three quarter of the team are based in Lille, which is just a short drive from Antwerp, and all the coach needed to do was make a few calls and the ladies were at his doorstep.
But they were not ready to face the Netherlands and went crashing. And after the Dutch match, six of the French ladies packed a smaller bag and rushed back to Lille, to sit for examinations, and go to work.
They six rushed back just in time for the the Japan match, after which it was off to Lille again for school and work.
They had a two day break where only about 10 players stayed back to train, while the rest did their schools and work run commute.
Colledge lamented that while women's hockey is not big in France, his ladies have a big heart and took the missing Azerbaijan opportunity without hesitating because opportunities to play against the higher ranked teams are rare for them.
Malaysia were just too far away to take up the FIH offer, but if they had scrambled the Sea Games team and asked the FIH to push back some of their matches, the experience would have been invaluable as Malaysia did play in the World League Round Two -- to try and enter the WL Semifinals but failed.
The French boys were not as fortunate though.
France beat Malaysia on penalty strokes in the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup in New Delhi, but the silver medallists will not be in next year's edition in New Delhi again.
The reason -- they were relegated to the second rung of the European Championships and will not get a chance to compete in the Junior World Cup qualifier which is only for teams in the first rung of the European Championships.
For Malaysian Juniors, four slots will be made available for New Delhi in the Junior Asia Cup in Kuantan in November -- and for sure coach Arul Selvaraj's boys will be among the semi-finalists together with India, Pakistan and South Korea/Japan.
A missed opportunity for the Malaysian women, but invaluable experience for the French ladies.