If you saw the first 30 minutes of the bronze medal playoff at the World League Final between India and Germany, you would have been forgiven for thinking Bhubaneswar is in Germany, and that the Indians were the hapless visitors who came into the match with two players joining five others in the sick bay.
India eventually ran out 2-1 winners to clinch a spot on the podium, but for two quarters of the game, it was Germany -- taking the field with just 11 fit men -- who took control at the Kalinga Stadium, playing a swift brand of uncomplicated, gritty hockey. India were getting a lot of the ball, but they seemed nervous, overanxious and error-prone.
India's best player was their goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, who was involved in a fabulous mini-battle with Niklas Bruns, a young German player who himself came into the squad at the last moment to replace Tobias Hauke. Bruns pulled every trick in the book, especially off the PCs, but Karkera's reflexes were on point.
In the second half, Germany found an unlikely hero in 23-year old Mark Appel, their substitute goalkeeper. Appel was played up front in attack, and he scored to draw the team level on the evening following a scrappy opener from SV Sunil. "That was my job today, just to attack on the centre directly at the goal at the long post. I tried my very best and obviously it worked quite well. To be honest, I haven't played on the field for 10 years, so it's the first goal I have ever scored in an official match," Appel said later.
It was a PC that eventually broke the German resistance, with Harmanpreet Singh drilling a powerful flick past Walter, who had a game just as good as Karkera. India coach Sjoerd Marijne said later that he was satisfied with the performance, and that he preferred to look at the positives throughout the tournament.
"The way they [Germany] played was not a system we were used to. I am happy with the win, because a match like this is difficult," he said. "We have to learn lessons from what happened today -- what did we do good, and what we didn't do good. When you have the possibility to score, it means you did good."
The game almost never came to be, German coach Stefan Kermas revealed, as Dieter Linnekogel and Ferdinand Weinke woke up with high temperatures and while some of five other players missing from Saturday's semi-final had recovered, they were in no shape to play.
"Yesterday was already quite tough and in the morning, we had a team meeting to decide if we would play today or not. In some way, you need to look if it makes sense to play, especially against India. But in the morning we decided we wanted to go as a team because yesterday was already such a good feeling," Appel said.
"I think it is quite difficult when you know that you play against a team that has only 11 players. It would be difficult if I were in this situation as well. In some way, you know that you need to win. I think they did a great job and played everything they wanted to. They had a lot of corners, and the result is quite fair to them."
It was a third FIH medal for India inside two years -- following bronze at the World League Final in 2015 and the Champions Trophy silver last year -- but the scenes after the full-time hooter were contrasting. The German players sank to their backs out of sheer exhaustion, but before long were taking a mini-lap of the Kalinga Stadium as the crowd gave them a big round of applause.
India were restrained in celebration and the only two players waving out to the crowd were Karkera and local lad Amit Rohidas.
"When you are a good player and have faith in your ability, why would you want to do think about the other teams," Harmanpreet said. "We retained the bronze. We are improving step by step. Everybody tried their best. These are the positive things. We have to work harder and change the colour of the medal."
As for the Germans, Appel laughed when asked what he would do next.
"First of all we go to the shower, eat a lot, and then have a team meeting, chill together and enjoy and recapture all that we did over the last two weeks," he said.
"I think what we did (over) the last two matches was much more than just getting the fourth place for us. At the moment, I probably can't describe what a feeling it is to play for this team. It's just a big honour for all of us."