Hockey World League Finals: India scanter past the finishing line to bag bronze medal

Gallant Germany, playing with just 11 players, make life miserable for the hosts, who rely on a late penalty corner to grab bronze

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Bhubaneshwar | Updated: December 11, 2017 9:42:17 am
The Germans were clearly the better side, but India were clinical enough to convert their chances to goals. (Source: PTI)

Apples were banned from the Kalinga Stadium the last fortnight. The harmless fruit figures prominently in the list of items considered to be ‘security threat’. But on Sunday, one snuck in. And became the biggest threat to the Indian defence.

Mark Appel came to Bhubaneswar as one of the two goalkeepers in Germany’s squad. But he will leave the city as the scorer of one of the most memorable goals in international hockey not just for the way it was scored but also the circumstances, which made it even more special.

For the record, the final scoreline read 2-1 in India’s favour. But when we look back, the scoreline will never be a reliable witness in describing how freaky and scarcely fathomable the events of this evening were. Eventually, a late Harmanpreet Singh drag-flick saved a full-strength India the embarrassment of being dragged into a penalty shootout by a severely depleted Germany, who did not even have enough players to field a proper playing XI.

So Appel, the goalkeeper, turned into a goal-poacher.

The 23-year-old hadn’t played as an outfield player for a decade. Now, he’s done it twice in two days. On Saturday, he was forced to step in after four of his mates were down with fever. By the time the team reached the hotel after losing 3-0 to Australia, two more players – Dieter Linnekogel and Ferdinand Weinke – had joined Christopher Ruhr, Marco Miltkau, Julius Meyer and Martin Haner in the growing list of German players who were running high temperature.

The team doctor declared all of them unfit to play the bronze-medal match and with Timur Oruz already ruled out due to injury, Germany were left with just 9 outfield players and 2 goalkeepers for the playoff. So, on the morning of the match, they went into a huddle in their meeting room of the team hotel.

If Germany had to play, it would have to be without substitutes. Stefan Kermas, coach since a year, had already weighed the pros and cons of playing with just 10 outfield players. This was a good time for Germany to have a man whose day job is of a risk assessment manager in their corner. But he’d left the decision to the players. “We asked ourselves, ‘guys are we going to go for it, go for the bronze?’” captain Mats Grambusch said. “And everybody said, ‘let’s do it.’”

Germany had shown India its place in the group stage match earlier in the week. But to return to the field less than 24 hours after playing Australia to take on the hosts in front of nearly 10,000 people for a medal with just 11 men was a brave call. Then again, it’d have been very unlike Germany if they would’ve thrown the towel without even stepping on the field.

So Grambusch led his platoon out on the field against an Indian battalion that was fresh after a day’s rest and raring to make amends following a defeat to Argentina in the semifinals. This was a unique scenario: an 18vs11 match has never been played in high-level hockey. Germany, though, weren’t there just to play a support role in India winning a medal.

Even with just 11 players, the Olympic bronze medallists were everything they usually are and India have perennially aspired to be: disciplined, efficient, quick, fit and aggressive. To play the way Germany did with 11 men, despite the brutality of modern hockey with its physicality and pace, was stuff straight out of Marvel movies.

Their game-plan looked straightforward – keep the possession to avoid running a lot and defend in zones. Appel, meanwhile, was given the licence to run around in the Indian ‘D’ and create as much panic as he could. “Since I haven’t played as a forward, it was impossible for me to understand the finer nuances of that position in just a day. So I just ran and tried to disturb the defenders as much as I could,” he said.

India, despite the numerical advantage, were rattled. The unusual scenario that they unwittingly became part of threw them off their game and they looked like a team willing to show mercy on the opponents rather than being ruthless. Although they enjoyed possession and had more entries into the German ‘D’, India were not clinical enough to open the scoring. Germany, on the other hand, created the better chances despite their players conserving energy to last the entire match.

Early lead

SV Sunil gave India the lead in the 21st minute, which brought more relief than joy for the home side, but that seemed to spur the Germans more than affect them. They created more chances off penalty corners but lacked the finishing.

At half time, Kermas did not indulge in any strategy talks. “I only spoke about emotional things – keep their emotions down and find tiny little things for the strikers,” Kermas said. “Our target was to just score a goal and see what happens.”

Minutes after the restart, Germany scored. Appel’s touch to control a speculative pass by Grambusch would’ve made an actual centre-forward proud. His finish, a lift over an advancing Suraj Karkera, was even more impressive. The goal initially silenced the crowd but after realising what had happened, even they applauded him.

You could sense the embarrassment the Indian players felt. This was a match they had to win. Yet, they were not able to. As minutes ticked by, they threw everything they had at the Germans but were still unable to break their resolve. Harmanpreet’s goal from a corner came at the right time for India, who were starting to get nervous.

If India were expecting that the goal would break their opponents, they couldn’t have been more off the mark. The home side had rotated their players roughly 60 times to keep them fresh. Yet, they were being chased down for every ball. You could get tired watching the Germans but they never got tired running.

Germany had more chances than India but somehow, the hosts hung on for the win. It was a crucial win for a team that has been under the scanner throughout the tournament. But this wasn’t about India. As the final hooter buzzed, every German player fell flat on the surface, exhausted and drained. Rupinder Pal Singh sat next to Grambusch, eventually named player of the tournament, and hugged him. A couple of other Indians embraced Appel.

Applepie, as he is called back home, nearly soured India’s evening. India could never have predicted that an Appel would prove to be such a threat.

Australia Extend supremacy

There’s a year still for the World Cup but defending champions Australia proved on Sunday why they are still the favourites despite not being at their dominant best. After under-achieving at the Rio Olympics, the reigning world champions defeated the Olympic gold medallists 2-1 in the final to win the World League.

Drag-flicker Jeremy Hayward converted a penalty corner in the 17th minute to put Australia ahead before Argentina equalised through Agustin Bugallo a minute later. Blake Govers (58′) put the Kookaburras ahead by converting another penalty corner just two minutes before the full time. It looked game over but Argentina threw the kitchen sink at their opponents.

Australia were put under extreme pressure in the last two minutes, winning three penalty corners. But goalkeeper Tyler Lovell made fantastic saves to keep Gonzalo Peillat’s powerful strikes out.

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