Borrowing from Gary Lineker, hockey is a simple game. Twenty-two players chase a ball for 60 minutes and in the end, the Germans always win. The four-time Olympic champion added a third world title, winning the 2023 edition that was played across Bhubaneshwar and Rourkela in Odisha.
Their feat left their own coach Andre Henning at a loss for words. During several junctures of the knockout stages, it looked like Germany was heading for the exit, but it kept coming back. The team was down 2-0 against England (quarterfinal), Australia (semifinal) and Belgium (final), but always found a way to overturn the deficits.
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In the quarterfinal, Germany scored past England’s Ollie Payne – the first goal conceded by the goalkeeper in 230 minutes – to take the game to penalty shootouts. In the semifinal, it dominated Australia, the tournament favourites, to win 4-3. In the final, it beat Belgium’s golden generation, which has dominated hockey for the last five years. As player-of-the-tournament Niklas Wellen rightly said, “it’s not luck if you do it three times in a row. It’s about mentality and character. We keep believing in our strengths.”
And in each situation, Germany saw several names put their hands up to be accounted for. And they all had their own stories to tell. In the quarterfinal, it was the Grambusch brothers, Mats and Tom, with the former taking a stand, and donning a rainbow armband through the tournament. In the semifinal, Gonzalo Peillat’s hattrick and Wellen’s goal with six seconds left took down the Aussies. Peillat, who won Olympics gold with Argentina in 2016, is now a fully integrated member of the Germany and the team’s drag-flick expert. Wellen, who became a father during the pool stages, stayed back in India to help take the gold home. In the final, Wellen, Peillat and Grambusch all scored before 20-year-old second-choice goalkeeper Jean-Paul Danneberg came off the bench to save two penalties in the shootout.
And steering this vibrant German team is Henning, who has risen from the ranks of the German coaching system to make the nation a force in hockey again. He has made this team tactically astute, and physically imposing, and moulded a never-say-never-attitude. Before the start of the tournament, Grambusch reflected on the change in mindset brought about through Henning’s training methods since he took over last year. It needed something special to dethrone Belgium off the perch and Germany managed to do just that.
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Questions will be asked of Belgium’s ageing champions, but it would be unfair to deem them a failure. The injury to Alexander Hendrickx, Red Lions’ penalty corner specialist, in the early stages meant the team had to find other ways to score goals. Despite the age factor, Belgium is unlikely to push the reset button with the Paris Olympics less than 18 months away.
The Netherlands dropped down a place on the podium from the 2018 edition to claim third and met a similar fate: penalty shootout loss to Belgium. Coming into the tournament with 11 debutants, they finished as the tournament’s top-scorer, dispatching the lower-ranked teams with ease. The Dutch set a World Cup record in the 14-0 thrashing of Chile for the biggest margin of victory in the World Cup.
Australia’s overall showing surprised many as it struggled against Argentina, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. They plundered goals past France and South Africa but failed to fire as a unit when it came to the big moments. Jeremy Hayward’s drag-flicking skills were a sight to behold but when the penalty corners dried up, the Aussies struggled to pose a threat.
Spain came in with the youngest squad and was outplayed by the big teams. Head coach Maximiliano Caldas, though, repeatedly defended the team’s performances despite the 2-0 and 4-0 defeats to India and England. A change in approach from a possession-based to a counter-attacking style shocked the Aussies briefly before coming up short in the end.
England hockey’s own brand of ‘Bazball’ won plaudits but failed against Germany’s mentality monsters, who scored two goals in the last three minutes before winning it on penalties. New Zealand provided the first and possibly the biggest upset of the tournament by dumping India out in the crossovers to make the last eight. While India had itself to blame for its capitulation, the Black Sticks’ fighting spirit unnerved the Indians in their own backyard.
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South Korea flew the flag high for the Asian teams by qualifying for the quarterfinals. Drawn in a strong pool with Belgium and Germany, it did enough to make it to the crossovers where it played out a thrilling 5-5 draw with Argentina and defeated the 2016 Olympic champion on penalties.
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India’s early exit in the crossovers seemed to suck the air out of the World Cup but the quality on show in the knockout stages made up for the host’s absence. High-scoring encounters, teams overturning deficits, last-minute equalisers, last-second winners, and penalty shootouts – it had it all.
The classification format might need to be reviewed going forward. Here, two (South Africa and Wales) of the four teams which finished bottom of the pool stages with no wins finished 11 and 12, while Malaysia, which had two wins in the group stages, ended 13th. The classification would have made for interesting viewing if the losing quarterfinalists came into the mixture.
It was also a tournament for several semi-professionals: bankers, professors, chartered accountants, accounts managers, teachers, and students. New Zealand’s second choice ‘keeper Leon Hayward is a full-time chartered accountant, who plays hockey in his “spare time”, and was the unlikely hero in the win over India. The debutants Wales and Chile brought plenty of colour to the tournament with several family members of the players making what was a difficult journey to Rourkela. Last year, the Welsh Hockey Association began a crowdfund, which Caldas and Belgium player Floren van Aubel contributed to, so the players could fly to India.
While their success stories are celebrated, these nations need a helping hand from the FIH to help professionalise the sport. The FIH president Tayyab Ikram and CEO Thierry Weil hailed the tournament’s success on the pitch, which it undoubtedly was. But it’s hard to quantify a tangible impact on the game worldwide due to the lukewarm coverage of the sport in those countries.