“The story is crazy and the people who knew about hockey were going nuts about the way we played and how we reached the trophy in the end,” says Christopher Ruhr, Germany’s headband-wearing, no-nonsense playmaker. “They knew what it was and what we achieved was extraordinary.”
Ruhr is talking to The Hockey Paper just over a month after Germany’s incredible men’s World Cup campaign. Those in hockey should all know the story – three times coming from 2-0 down in successive matches to lift their first World Cup since 2006 – yet for many in his homeland, the chance to elevate hockey to become a national talking point went begging. “It needs to get to the people but we can’t expect anything big to happen,” adds Ruhr.
On the Sunday of the World Cup final, all the talk was of handball. Germany were playing for fifth (yes, fifth) in the handball World Cup and this minor placing encounter took preference over hockey’s big day for Die Honamas.
Germany’s national broadcaster went with handball (a much bigger sport), which left the Bhubaneswar showpiece behind a paywall with DAZN. “There would easily have been the possibility to cover our final but it didn’t happen,” says Ruhr. “During the tournament the coverage was nearly non-existent, which is normal for Germany and quite sad.”
Following their shoot-out win over Belgium – the final there was also played out on subscription TV – Germany’s victory did become front page news as their story filtered out across the country. Ruhr, who resumed hockey five weeks after Germany lifted the trophy, admitted to “partying and chilling” during that time. And what a moment it has been for a nation seeking a repeat at this summer’s EuroHockey Championships.
In the hours after their third World Cup success, the squad flew back to Frankfurt. “We didn’t expect anything to happen,” says Ruhr.
It was soon relayed that fans were waiting at the airport, numbering around 500, before an onward homecoming event in Cologne two hours away. The squad were due to be there at 9pm but baggage delays saw a two-hour hold up. No matter, there were over a thousand supporters at Rot-Weiss Köln on the Monday night, including plenty of school kids. Having finished the last of the autographs at 1am, the adults continued until around 6am with a still full clubhouse. “Many people were lost for words for what we did and were fully celebrating with us,” recalls Ruhr.
“We were told about watch parties and kids going crazy for what we did. What I heard a lot was that we made it too exciting and people couldn’t sit still. That’s different to when you play because you don’t feel like that, you stay focused on trying to win. A shoot-out is exciting for us as well, but watching is way more exciting, in a bad way, than playing the game!”
Team-mates went on TV including the Saturday primetime sports show and there is a sense that the German public now know what had unravelled in that script for the ages in Bhubaneswar. “Maybe not many people watched it beforehand but after seeing us play, it would have brought people to the sport,” Ruhr added of the TV lockout.
“That is sad. But we hope it will be different for the Euros. To get people to watch hockey live in Germany is something we want to achieve. I hope the ticket sales for EuroHockey went up quite a bit.”
Big trophies have been amiss from Germany’s hockey honours in recent years. So, what is the feeling like, especially for a nation which is not centrally funded? “It is so surreal,” admits Ruhr. “As in normal life you are just a normal guy, you have your studies, your family and training, but it’s not like a footballer.”
I ask him about signing autographs and one day, perhaps, there will be a young fan who will run out in a Die Honamas shirt. “It is quite remarkable what influence you can have on kids,” he says.
So to that week in east India. One, which will be very hard to match in the coming years. In the last eight, England had been playing some of their best hockey in years. For 55 minutes at least. “We had the plan to substitute regularly and not being on the pitch too long, as we may have lacked power in the end.” recalls Ruhr. “In the final minutes you want your top players on the pitch and that was the plan, but during the games from minute 1 to 50 you want rolling subs.
When coach Andre Henning took off Alex Stadler with over five minutes left it set part one of Germany’s herculean storyline into motion, with their two late goals and shoot-out win. “That was the biggest mistake they could have made, going to zonal defence,” says Ruhr. “We didn’t really cope with the man to man as you don’t play that as much anymore. We had the players and ability to dominate against zonal, even against Belgium. That played into our hands.”
Ruhr was on two yellow cards but with no FIH rules stipulating match bans, the German still knew that he had to be careful – despite an off the ball incident with England’s Liam Sanford. “In the semis and final I played at 95 per cent,” he admits now. “I didn’t take any big tackles or make a steal. It is something I will have to look at for the future.
“I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, my defensive work is on the edge, sometimes over and sometimes under which can be a positive or a negative.
“We will see how I cope with it in the future. I’m confident that I can contribute positive things also on defence. When you look 10 years back, strikers didn’t defend at all. Footballers still don’t do that and my defending work ethic is one of my big strengths, but it needs to be controlled better at times.”
For all their success, the 29-year-old admits that the pressure and competition has its price, too. “It’s not only good things with huge success as you can fall into a hole as well,” he says. “When I look back, it’s not all 100 per cent positive. It’s something my brain is working with and it’s good to get time off hockey completely and not be under pressure the whole time and cope with everyone watching you.”
Yet, he can still marvel at what the class of 2023 achieved, a decade after the junior national team won the World Cup in New Delhi. There were seven players, including coach Andre Henning, who were present on the winners’ podium this January.
As the trophy drought began to take effect over the last decade, Ruhr says: “You could hear voices in Germany saying we were not capable of winning. When you look at who didn’t win a World Cup of the big players from past generations, it’s a pretty big achievement and we can be very proud to have won it.”
Ruhr’s medicine career – his father was a GP while orthopedics is also a potential career route – is currently on hold as he looks to be included at a third Olympic Games in Paris. The World Cup win means extra funding from the German sports hub, more money in the monthly kitty for the players to focus purely on sport – a key cog in their bid to double up at a home EuroHockey.
“Coming back from 2-0 down in three games is remarkable,” adds Ruhr. “Even Australia and Belgium probably already knew we were capable of it and still they couldn’t do anything about it. It will be very interesting this summer.”