Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is Germany starting to lose its dominance over world hockey?

The 2014 Hockey World Cup has witnessed a slew of surprises, but the most striking undoubtedly will be the exit of Olympic champions and world number two Germany from the semifinal stage. It is the first time that the German men are not playing the World Cup semifinals since the inaugural 1971 edition in Barcelona, where they settled for the fifth place after defeating the Netherlands who ended up sixth.

This record of just one non-semifinal appearance in 13 World Cups until the 2014 edition just speaks volumes the stranglehold Germany had over world hockey over the past few decades. The Markus Weise-coached Germany have ‘consistently’ raised the bar over the years building an aura of invincibility about them that compelled other teams to look up to them with awe and respect. Mind you, Markus Weise has great credentials as coach – he has been at the helm since 2006 and has coaching the national women’s and men’s to glory in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. A great team is all about having a talented bunch, who gel as a unit, backed by an industrious, shrewd coach. And Germany seemed to have that as they won gold in the last two Olympics (2008 and 2012) as well as in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups besides a runners-up finish in the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi.

Germany acquired the status of a ‘red-hot favourite’ in most tournaments they featured and were increasingly seen as the one most internationals sides were keen to play as beating them was not just an ‘honourable achievement’ but also an opportunity for teams to improve their game.
One can’t help but feel that Germany’s showing in the 2014 World Cup is surely going to set tongues wagging about whether they are beginning to lose their ‘competitive edge’ in recent times. Germany’s below-par performance at The Hague is triggering hushed whispers about whether Germany are starting to lose its dominance over world hockey. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the German team have become bad overnight or lack the players to corner glory. Clearly, nobody can't deny that Germany hasn’t quite played like the world number two side, who are also the current Olympic champions.

Granted, the Germans suffered a heavy blow in the run-up to the World Cup when their inspirational captain Moritz Fuertse was ruled out with a hamstring injury. Moritz was a dominating figure in the German midfield – he is somebody who is so strong in feeding the forwardline as well as in bottling up the opposition strikers – Indian hockey fans know it too well how he shaped up Ranchi Rhinos’ inaugural HIL crown.But is the Germany team so heavily reliant on one player? Don’t think so as they have quite a few quality players in their ranks – Christopher Ruhr, Christopher Zeller, Oliver Korn, Nicolas Jacobi, are exciting talents, but it won’t unfair to say that Moritz’s absence was sorely felt in their midfield. Oscar Deecke was another key player who was not part of the World Cup side and the absence of these two players did affect the team’s balance, if not deplete them.

It’s not just about players only. The Germans are known to play like a well-oiled machine, but their performance in recent times will tell you a different story. At the 2014 Hockey World League Final Round in New Delhi, Germany created a flutter when they failed to make it to the semifinals. They no doubt started their campaign with a 6-1 demolition of eventual runners-up New Zealand, but they lost to England 1-2 and contrived to draw 3-3 with India after coming agonizingly close to losing it until the hosts leaked a final minute goal. The black-and-white brigade subsequently lost to India 4-5 to finish seventh among eight teams - a position they wouldn’t have bargained for going into the tournament.

If one thought, the HWL Final Round was a one-off thing, it is not. Germany struggled a lot in the 2014 Ergo Masters Four Nations Tourney in Dusseldorf - their last international tourney before the World Cup - where they failed to win a single game. The Germans lost 1-2 to the Netherlands, drew 2-2 with England and Belgium respectively and went into the 2014 World Cup with their confidence not exactly ‘sky-high’.
The Germans decimated South Africa in their opening World Cup game but a stunning solitary goal defeat to 11th ranked Argentina derailed their title hopes and soon their semifinal hopes with their 0-1 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands. Two crucial defeats dented their chances in a big way and even though they regrouped to beat New Zealand 5-3 and Korea 2-0, to finish 9 points from 5 games, it was never going to be enough to march into the semifinals as Argentina went through at their expense by virtue of their league match win.

Germany have not even finished second best, let alone winning it, in their last three international tournaments, and uncomfortable questions will be asked whether all is well with German hockey. We will have to wait and see whether the prolific run of the Germans has been halted temporarily or is it a sign of the beginning of the end of their dominance over world hockey.

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