Hockey World Cup semifinal: Argentina-born Gonzalo Peillat helps Germany beat Australia in a classic

It certainly isn’t the genes. Else, an Argentine wouldn’t so effortlessly do what is second nature to the Germans: grind down opponents, score late goals and snatch wins from the jaws of defeat. But that’s what Gonzalo Peillat did in a semifinal that will go down as a World Cup classic.

Australia showed the ruthlessness typical of them to go up 2-0 inside the first half hour. Peillat hit back with two drag flicks that made it 2-2.

The world No.1 side responded aggressively, scoring with just two minutes left to play to reclaim their lead. Any other team and it would perhaps have been game over. But as Andre Henning, the German coach, said the other day, ‘the game is over only when Germany is sitting on the bus or checking out.’

And so, Peillat, arguably the world’s best flicker, dragged Germany back into the match in the very next minute, and completed his hat-trick in the process.

These were world hockey’s two heavyweights trading blows until the final bell rang. Most teams would have settled for a 3-3 draw and taken the game into penalties. But that would be betraying the German way.

They took control of the possession with around 40 seconds left, kept the ball in their own half, changed the gears with 15 seconds remaining, entered the Australian ‘D’ from the left flank with 9 to go and found the winning goal with just 6 seconds left to play – Niklas Wellen, who became a father during the tournament, latching on to a failed clearance in front of the goal. A cool mind, a simple tap-in, 4-3, another improbable German comeback complete.

“F**k my heart is about to explode,” Peillat gasped. “I told to the boys, ‘this time, let’s try not to take it to the last second’. But then Germany… it’s a different culture.”

During the 2018 World Cup, Peillat was here wearing the light-blue-and-white colours of Argentina, the country he almost single-handedly led to Olympic gold at Rio 2016. Soon after, he fell out with the team management and things got so bitter that Peillat decided to switch allegiances. He took citizenship in Germany, where he was playing club hockey, didn’t play the whole of 2021 to fulfil the international federation’s criteria, and debuted for his adopted land last year.

His journey is different to the immigration stories that are common in football. Peillat is more of a mercenary. After growing differences with his own countrymen, he was looking for a ‘new nation’, and in Germany, he found a team that could do with a player of his calibre in their quest to be counted among the world’s elite once again.

The semifinal against Australia was evidence of how well that marriage is going, winning a match that Peillat says any other team – including Argentina – might have lost. “The difference with Argentina is,” he says, “we are more passionate and lose our minds a little bit. With the German culture, we are calmer and trying to go for the tactics and find the opponent’s weak point.”

It isn’t simple as that, of course. But Germany also found themselves in a position to make another comeback because of their slick tactical play.

‘Too polite’

Even though Australia were 2-0 up at halftime, they weren’t as dominant as they’d have liked to be. Germany easily sliced open their defence through the middle and created chances – the half-a-dozen penalty corners they won are an indicator of how good they were.

The only difference was that Australia were more ruthless and unforgiving inside the ‘D’, where they weren’t shy to take a shot at goal. “We (instead) were too polite in the opposition’s ‘D’,” captain Mats Grambusch says. “There were too many chances which we just didn’t… we were dribbling and (doing) stuff like that. We just got to be straightforward in the ‘D’, hit the target.”

In the second half, Germany came out more aggressively against an Aussie side that was ‘strong, tough and athletic’. The change in mindset complemented their style of play, with the zonal marking completely choking Australia for space.

Tom Grambusch, playing as sweeper back, won most of his duels with Australian forwards Nathan Ephraums and Blake Govers. In the midfield, Martin Zwicker and Christopher Ruhr controlled the possession so neatly that Australia barely got a chance to launch a counterattack. And Peillat, a defender by trade, joined the offence so frequently that Wellen was never overburdened.

Perhaps, it was this German efficiency that gave them the confidence of pulling off another heist despite being 2-0 down against a team that looked like the only real contender to challenge Belgium, who defeated the Netherlands in another close semifinal to reach their third major final in a row after the 2018 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics.

“We have trust in each other,” Wellen, whose wife delivered a baby boy just before Germany’s first match of the World Cup, says.

When Australia went ahead with a little more than two minutes to go, Germany’s reaction was not to panic. “We knew we would get at least one chance,” Wellen says. “At least one.”

But they got two. And it was Wellen who completed the comeback that was orchestrated by Peillat, who will play his first major final on Sunday after the gold medal match at the Rio Olympics. Back then, it was for Argentina. Now, it’ll be for Germany.

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