20th November 2017: With his gleaming smile framing his boundless passion and energy for hockey, Moritz Fürste becomes the first German man to be inducted into the EHF Hall of Fame.
It follows a breathtaking career for club and country, marked with over a dozen top line titles. Had you asked him during his teenage years if all of this lay ahead of him, however, he would scarcely have believed it? Reflecting on a sparkling career, though, he is delighted to have his efforts recognised by the European hockey public.
“It’s a great honour, especially because it’s a public vote and I honestly didn’t expect it, especially because my country is not famous for voting publicly for anyone! I’m incredibly honoured and think this is a great institution that there is a hall of fame. There are many players who deserve to be part of it. I am thrilled to be one of them.”
Titles were never the motivation for me to compete. If that was the case, I could have stopped six years ago when we basically had every title won! I have to be very thankful to every team mate I ever played with who made it happen.”
He is very much a son of Hamburg, nestled in the north of Germany and his club, UHC, is an intrinsic part of his DNA. He formally started playing there in 1989, age four, but had been “basically parked beside the pitch” since birth. “My Dad took me to the hockey field long before; when I was one, I was watching with my mum and running around on the training ground. I was always part of the UHC family and thought of it as my second home, sometimes even my first!”
VHS footage of his youth at the club still exists of those early years when his love for the club – and the sport – were forged. He has spent one season outside of the club, joining Club de Campo in Madrid to learn Spanish in 2010/11. “I remember our first little games [at UHC]. We were really unsuccessful which we still laugh about! My club, UHC, always kept going and is always a big part of my heart. They were always there for me and I am happy to have given something back.”
With them, he has won three Euro Hockey League crowns, including the inaugural edition of the premier club competition. “I would never compare titles or prizes because they all have their own history but the EHL is something I won with the people I grew up with, the group of my best friends, most of whom I see everyday even when they stop playing. In 2008, it was amazing to reach something like that with my club where we have yet to win the German championship; it was very emotional and a very important step in my career!”
Through his youth, though, the international game was never really on his radar but, in some ways, it has helped him keep his hunger and passion to represent his country. “I never played any Under-16 or 18 international games and was not even invited to camps, basically because I was not good enough. Now, I am very happy I didn’t have to go to those because I think it can be some kind of motivation killer for kids when they get to 19-years-old when they play their first senior international but already have 80 or 90 underage caps.”
“How could I, as a captain of the team, say it’s the best thing ever to play for Germany when they have already done it 80 times? I don’t see the necessity of playing for your country when you are 15 years-old. There’s a lot of time after then with the senior squad when you can play for your country and make them proud.”
He admits it is a subjective opinion, one based around his own experiences. The turning point for him came when he became eligible for the first team at UHC. “Playing for the senior team in 2002, that was when I started training more, started working on my skills as well as athleticism and the physical sessions. Before, I just played hockey for the love of it. It was quite a quick step – 2003 was my first Under-21 cap, playing the European Cup and then, a year later, the Junior World Cup.”
“Before that, I never felt close to anything to do with international hockey. In Sydney, I didn’t even watch the hockey in the Olympic Games – which is very rare for a young kid crazy about hockey. I wasn’t so interested in watching it because, for me, it felt as far away as the soccer World Cup.”
Again, the path to breakthrough was never far from smooth. At the Junior World Cup, he was enjoying a fine tournament but, after three games, he tore three ligaments in his foot and broke his left hand for good measure, leaving him to watch from the stands for the next five games.
But fate twisted in his favour later in 2005 at the Champions Trophy. He was not initially picked but Bjorn Emmerling tore his ACL in India in a friendly match for a World XI against an Asia XI as part of the tsuanmi relief efforts.
“The coach called me and I was allowed to fly over. When I was in the air, we played our first match. Two games were already played when I arrived but I had a good tournament. I still talk to Bernard Peters and he says that was my breakthrough.”
He never lost his place after that, embarking on an incredible run of glory. It started with the 2006 World Cup in Mönchengladbach, the 2007 Indoor World Cup in Vienna and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Combining indoor and outdoor hockey is something that Fürste believes is a crucial factor in reaching such heights and made it possible for Germany to win three major titles in such quick succession.
“I’m 100% certain [they work together],” he says of the mutually beneficial skill-sets but also of the psychological approach that comes with the indoor game. I don’t understand anyone who does not see how it benefits your outdoor hockey. Especially when it comes to defence, working on a low body position. Also with mental strength. In indoor, you are on the edge all the time. You can be 3-0 down with 90 seconds to go and still draw the game or win it. Believing in yourself, going the extra mile, getting in tight situations where you have to score short corners under pressure. That happens way more often and so it strengthens your focus.
From that, for the teams I have been involved in, I don’t think I have been in a team – apart from the European final in 2015 – where we ever thought we were beaten. Even then, I still thought maybe a miracle can happen at the end of the third quarter, maybe grab a corner and who knows.”
The MVP awards began to stack up too around this time: he was named the best player of the EHL in 2007/08 and again in 2009/10 and the European Championships MVP in 2011 in the gold medal run. And, following nominations in 2010 and 2011, he was named the 2012 FIH Player of the Year following his defining role in the Olympic gold in London.
During that second Olympic gold, he says the semi-final win over Australia was “probably the best I ever played in my career” as Germany produced a tactical masterclass to come from 2-1 down to win 4-2.
He hails their defensive approach that rendered Australia’s famous high press inert; it is one of his most vivid highlights. “It’s funny because I spoke to Ric Charlesworth about this; he’s a successful coach and I was teasing him about it, saying ‘you didn’t have a chance that day even though you ran five kilometres more than us’ – I was trying to be funny!
He disagreed and showed me statistics, they had more circle penetrations and 20 shots more but I remembered all of them coming from close to the baseline; it was exactly what we were supposed to do. Offensively, we played myself and Tobias Hauke in midfield and I don’t remember us or anyone on the left or right half losing the ball all game. It was one of my sweetest memories.
The semi-final against Holland in Beijing was also a cracker; the strokes, the late goal with five minutes to go, me making quite a good pass to Philipp Zeller – that was a cool memory. Above all, the goal medal moments, the final whistle are still unbelievable.”
The Olympics will always be a special event for Fürste. In recent times, he was part of the campaign to try and get the Games to Hamburg while he recently tweeted his respect for Paris and LA being the next named venues for 2024 and 2028.
In 2014, he was awarded a special merit award for his commitment to the Olympic spirit by the Deutsche Olympische Gesellschaft (German Olympic Society).
“It’s a mixture of spirit and respect for all the athletes there. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, how tall or big. Whoever you meet there deserves to be there for whatever they have done. I’m very thankful I could experience that three times. Watching games now, I answer quite honestly that I don’t have a problem with it at all. It’s the right time. The one thing that makes me sad is that I will not be part of when the German team moves into the German house in the Olympic village in Tokyo.
Even now, with three years to go, that is the greatest thing to experience once again. The Olympics are so special, so many memories that are not easy to describe. It was always the most important thing to keep me going and pulled me to training at 8am in the morning and 8pm at night.”
Photographs: World Sport Pics. com
Interview: Stephen Findlater