In the latest of our Olympic Spotlight feature stories, we focus our gaze on Germany, a European powerhouse with a stellar history at the Olympic Games.
Following their wonderful Olympic bronze medal success at Rio 2016, Germany’s women have continued to look like a team that can challenge the very best in the world. A bronze medal in the inaugural FIH Hockey Pro League and silver medals at the two most recent European Championship events prove that Die Danas – coached by former Belgian international Xavier Reckinger – really are a class act, and they will be looking to get amongst the medals in Japan. Germany faced against Italy in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, comfortably winning both matches to create an emphatic 9-0 aggregate score-line to reach Tokyo 2020.
The trophy haul achieved by Germany’s men’s team – known as ‘Die Honamas’ and coached by Kais al Saadi – down the years is intimidatingly impressive. Their four Olympic gold medals, two World Cups, eight European Championships and nine Champions Trophy titles provides clear evidence of their consistently excellent performances at the highest levels of international hockey. Having medalled at the previous four Olympic Games competitions (including gold at Beijing 2008 and London 2012), they also have a habit of peaking just at the right time. Germany – silver medallists at June’s EuroHockey Championships in Amstelveen (NED) – were comprehensive winners against neighbours Austria in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, winning 5-0 and 5-3 in Mönchengladbach.
We caught up with Germany superstars Charlotte Stapenhorst and Florian Fuchs ahead of their respective title challenges in Tokyo. The interviews were conducted separately whilst the Germany teams were on a pre-Olympic training camp in Valencia, Spain at the end of June.
Thanks for talking to us! The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is just weeks away – it has been a long time coming! How are you and your squad feeling ahead of the Games?
Charlotte Stapenhorst: “Feeling really well and definitely excited. We are currently doing our last preparations here in Valencia, but then we are really excited that the Olympics are going to start.”
Florian Fuchs: “Of course everyone is really excited that the Games are going ahead. There were some question marks in the last few months, but we are super excited that we can actually play in Tokyo. It has been a crazy ride. We had a long period in 2020 where we could hardly play any games. When we started in 2020-2021, we were struggling, and hadn’t really progressed, which was also due to the long break we’d had. Now, the team is quite confident. We had a point in March where we played the Dutch team, and things switched. We had a lot more confidence and played well as a team. That was a starting point, and we realised that we can beat and compete with all of the teams at the moment. The Europeans [were Germany won silver] proved that again. That also gives you a boost in terms of motivation in terms of trust in our skills and the team we have. I’m super excited and have a lot of trust and faith in our group. We will show some good hockey, and a lot of emotion and energy.”
Charlotte, you’ve have been lucky enough to stand on the podium at Olympic competition, winning bronze at Rio 2016. What does representing your country on the Olympic stage mean to you?
Charlotte Stapenhorst: “For me, it is pretty much everything. We are putting so much work into what we do and what we love, and that is such a big reward, to go out there and represent our country and, hopefully, stand on the podium.”
Florian, you won Olympic gold at London 2012, when you were just 20 years old. How do you feel looking back at that now?
Florian Fuchs: “When you are that young, it feels like a dream. You immediately continue [with life]. I started studying straight afterwards, and my international career continued, playing tournaments. You are going from tournament to tournament, enjoying it a lot of course and you realise that you have achieved something big. However, corona was also a moment where I realised just how big that [gold in London] really was. There was a period for a couple of months where we actually couldn’t play, and the most important tournament that we were all working towards [Tokyo 2020] was postponed. Suddenly, you are sitting at home – my girlfriend and I never had that much time at home as in normal times I’d travel – and then you’d start talking about these things. You go much deeper, start looking back and watching videos from back then. I think that gives you a different perspective, nine years after that great success. I think corona was a moment where you stopped for a minute and just realised how great that journey was, not just London but also the years after.”
Florian, on the way to winning bronze at Rio 2016, you were involved in that famous win against New Zealand, where Germany produced one of the greatest come-backs in Olympic history. Fighting back from 2-0 down with four minutes to go, you claimed a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to you scoring with the last touch of the game. These are iconic moments for fans and incredible memories for you – competing at the Olympic Games, representing your country, must mean the world to you. After everything that has happened with coronavirus, does it make you appreciate it even more?
Florian Fuchs: “Definitely. I think all of us always appreciated it. You work so hard to get there, to compete at the Olympics. Once the Olympics are over, then you realise how big it is, to compete there. Winning a gold medal, winning a bronze, that is unbelievable, and I think corona made it even bigger. You realise how big that privilege is. We are also very privileged to compete at the [upcoming] Olympics, now that they are actually happening. Staying healthy is of course the most important thing in these times and that has to be taken care of, of course. But considering that we are still in a pandemic, it’s pretty remarkable and of course a great privilege for us to compete there. We are aware of that. We are not going there for the sake of playing – we are also aware that it is really special to be going there after those tough times during that crisis, that we are actually able to compete as athletes and represent our countries.”
It was a while back now, but securing qualification for Tokyo was obviously a crucially important step. What do you remember about your matches in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers?
Charlotte Stapenhorst: “It was two years ago! I was injured and had just been through knee surgery, but obviously being a spectator and watching the games, I can say that the girls were really confident. I knew that we were able to beat Italy. Looking back at it, making sure that we had qualified for the Olympics early helped a lot. Everyone could think ‘I only have to make the squad, we don’t have to worry about qualifying’. It was a good early step. Most, but not all, of the girls knew that we were going to beat Italy. Being on the side-line is so, so frustrating – you are so nervous and cannot really take part. It was hard, but I knew the girls would go through, so that made me feel kind of relaxed on the side-line.”
Florian Fuchs: “You get nervous, of course. It was two games in a tournament setting. We didn’t have much preparation, and it comes down to those two games. We had [former Germany women’s and men’s head coach] Marcus Weise coming back for those games, and he gave us some good insights about the months and years before. That was a new perspective for the team, and I think we did pretty well in the qualifier. We deserved to secure the spot at the Olympics, and it felt pretty good being on the pitch with the team. That is sort of the start of the journey, knowing that you are going to be at the Olympics. It felt like a starting point.”
Die Honamas are in Pool B alongside reigning World champions Belgium, recently crowned European champions the Netherlands, Great Britain, South Africa and Canada, who you begin your campaign against on 24 July. What are your thoughts about the pool, and how important is it to finish as high up the standings as possible ahead of those cross-over quarter-finals?
Florian Fuchs: “It is a tough pool I guess, but every team is super-fit at the Olympics. Every team is determined to make it to the knock-out stages. I think it is pretty cool that we can play Belgium, the Netherlands and England [Great Britain], all teams that we played at the Euros, again. I think that is nice. [Regarding] being ranked high in the group phase, we were ranked first in 2016 and then we played New Zealand [who finished fourth in their pool]. You might think it is easier to play New Zealand, but it wasn’t that way, and we scored a last second goal [to win]. It wasn’t our best game, and we were hoping to play a lot differently, but New Zealand played really well. At the Olympics, it is just a completely different story. You should never think that a better [pool] position or a less good opponent makes things easy. It is never easy to reach the semis at the Olympics, something we experienced in Rio. We were very lucky, and what a game it was. But I don’t want to experience that again!”
Die Danas are in Pool A alongside reigning World champions the Netherlands, current Olympic champions Great Britain, World Cup silver medallists Ireland, India and South Africa. What are your thoughts, Charlotte?
Charlotte Stapenhorst: “We have a really good pool! Obviously being one of the first four is important, to make the quarter-finals. We know that we have to look at ourselves and make sure that every pool game, we come out a little better. We need to make sure that we build up a good tournament, so if the start doesn’t go well, we don’t have to be frustrated as it is a long journey and I hope we will have eight games. Finishing high in the pool is helpful because the other pool is also pretty good! We are looking a little at our [potential] quarter-finals and what the other teams could be, but in the end, we’ll have a look after the last pool game, when everything is settled. We’ll proceed from game to game, I think.”
Finally, you come into the competition on the back of a very strong performance at the EuroHockey Championships, where Germany’s teams won silver. How much confidence does that give you going into the Olympics?
Charlotte Stapenhorst: “A lot. At the end of the game we thought, ok we lost and got the silver medal, but everyone was feeling a little more angry, knowing that we have another chance this summer. It was a good preparation for the Olympics. Five games, high tempo, good nations playing there. The other nations, like Australia and New Zealand, have had Pro League games, but having a tournament right before the Olympics [was great]. At first I thought, ‘that’s going to be too much, it’s going to be really hard’, but now I am really pleased that we had that. It was such good preparation, with everyone having to perform under pressure. That was a really good thing, I think. Everyone knew that in the summer there is a bigger thing coming up. We were disappointed, but everyone knew that this is not the European summer, it’s the Olympic summer.”
Florian Fuchs: “The Euros are hard to compare to Tokyo. There are a lot of other factors that play out at an Olympics. But I think for all of the teams it was a really good test. We had games during the Pro League where there was maybe less pressure on the games, but even under pressure [at the Euros] we didn’t crack. In the semi-final we played really well. I think that was also a moment for the team. We haven’t won important games in a long time. During the World Cup or Europeans, when it came down to the decisive games we were not really that successful in recent years. But this time, we showed some really good hockey and that gives everyone great confidence. As I said, there will be other factors in Tokyo, but the Euros were a booster for us. We will take that positive energy, transfer it to the Olympics and play even better.”
The hockey competitions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will take place from Saturday 24 July to Friday 6 August 2021. Both the men’s and women’s competitions feature 12 teams, split into two pools of six ahead of quarter-finals, semi-finals and medal matches. For more information about the hockey competitions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, visit https://tokyo2020.org/en/sports/hockey/.
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