Handball Makes ESPN Sports Center Top 10:  13 Hours Later: A Million Views, 140,000 likes and 2,600 Comments; Here’s One More Commentary

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet gets over a million views for his spectacular goal vs Metalurg

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet had quite the goal yesterday vs Metalurg in their opening match of the 2017-18 EHF Champions League campaign.  The EHF posted a video highlight of the goal and it was promptly reposted by ESPN’s Sports Center Instagram account.

13 hours later the video highlight had been viewed over a million times, liked 140,000 times and had received 2,600 comments.

From time to time I’ve written a few commentaries about handball’s very limited exposure in the U.S. and how increasing that exposure via TV isn’t just something that would be kind of nice to have, but that it is very most critical need for the sport in this country. I know I’m just “some guy” with opinions, but my goodness could anything more demonstrably show how valid that opinion is?

A million views in just 13 hours! Peruse the comments and the broken record of “what is that?” and “why isn’t that played here in the U.S.?” that’s asked over and over and over.

Now sit back and reflect that this is just one highlight posted to an ESPN Instagram account.  It’s not even clear to me whether the highlight made the TV Sports Center.  At least it wasn’t in the Top Ten Plays on the broadcast I saw Saturday night.

Now just imagine if ESPN showed handball on TV or even just on their digital “Watch ESPN” platform.  As I wrote 5 years ago from that day forward just about every discussion about handball in the U.S. would be preceded with either, “Well, before handball was on ESPN” or “Well, since handball’s been on ESPN.”  I’m not kidding.  It would be a monumental game changer.  Such a development would make everything USA Team Handball might want to accomplish easier and more effective be it fundraising or youth club development or national team recruiting.

And, before you “pooh pooh” such talk as simply wishful thinking look back at this post back in 2012 when arguably ESPN’s most prominent personality, Scott Van Pelt, wore a USA Team Handball shirt (that he had to make on his own) during the Olympics.  He and others had discovered the new sport, and perhaps with the right facilitation maybe a deal could have been brokered for U.S. broadcasts on some TV network.  Maybe, I wouldn’t be having this whimsical could of, would of, should of discussion.

It took a couple of years, but handball did land on a network in the U.S.  Unfortunately, though, it was beIN Sports US, which has very limited distribution and doesn’t promote the sport effectively.  I highlighted my frustration with beIN Sports, the EHF, USA Team Handball and other entities (including myself) in this commentary in 2015.

Two years later, things are actually worse as beIN Sports now doesn’t even bother to show the EHF Champions League Match of the Week on TV.  Although, you can view it on its digital beIN Sports Connect platform.  If you can figure out what’s channel the match is on.  For yesterday’s match between Barcelona and Rhein-Neckar the online beIN Sports TV guide said Ch 8, but I eventually found it on Ch 9.  I even watched for a bit until in the 2nd half the transmission got so garbled I gave up and watched NFL football instead.  Sigh…

I always like to think that it’s always darkest before the dawn.  That this crazy situation where handball can’t even be seen in the U.S. is just a temporary situation that will pass.  That ESPN or perhaps the new NBC Olympic Channel will pick up some handball rights.  Or that the digital TV revolution will bypass TV altogether and handball will have its own Roku or Over The Top (OTT) viewing options.

With the 2028 Olympics in LA now a certainty one can only think that it’s just a matter of time before handball finds a home in the U.S. Sports scene.  That the opportunity to promote the sport effectively will be such a win-win for everyone involved with the sport that this frustrating situation will seem passé and quaint.  I’ve been saying that now for decades, but sooner or later, I’m going to be right.  Let’s hope for sooner.

Commentaries on Handball’s lack of exposure and the importance of TV broadcasts.

  • 2009 commentary on Rugby TV broadcasts in the U.S.: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary on how few people in the U.S. are fans of the sport: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding the Catch 22 TV paradox: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding Europe’s lack of engagement with the U.S. market: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding new European efforts to engage the U.S. market: Link

Side Note:  Back in 2013 I wrote an article on Diego Simonet’s debut with Montpellier and I speculated as to whether he might be the best Argentinian player ever.  I’ll go on record now that he is.  Sorry Eric Gull.  Question now, is whether he might be eventually recognized as the best player to come out of Pan America.  A much higher honor considering the number of Cubans that have made their mark.

2017-18 EHF Champions League Season: Odds and Predictions

Paris SG has the highest paid roster, but has yet to secure a Champions League Title. Is this their year?

The EHF Champions League gets underway today and without a doubt it provides the very best opportunity to watch top flight professional handball on a regular basis.  Fans in the U.S. can see most of the matches live and all the matches on a delayed basis at ehftv.com.  And, if you have beIN Sports you can catch the Match of the Week live on their digital platform beIN Sports Connect.

Last year I wrote a commentary highlighting that while the games are great to watch the format has a lot to be desired in terms of drama during the Group Phase.  This is because in Groups A and B (the top two groups) 6 of 8 teams advance to the Knockout Phase.  And, not only do too many teams advance, each of these groups also includes 2-3 clubs that are, on paper, substantially weaker.  It’s practically ordained that the top 5 clubs will advance in each group.

About the only drama, such as it is, is the jockeying for seeding position in the Round of 16.  1st place teams receive a bye to the quarterfinals while 2nd and 3rd place teams, in theory, have an easier matchup.  This leaves the 4th and 5th placed clubs with a challenging knockout pairing that could go either way.  Finally, there’s often a battle for 6th place and a shot at beating the 3rd place team in the other group.

As far as Groups C and D go, these clubs fight for the right for 2 spots in the knockout tournament where they get to take on the 2nd place clubs from Groups A and B.  For the most part they are comparable in terms of strength to the bottom clubs in Groups A and B.  But, there are exceptions and apparently some problems with the seeding formula.  In particular, the French League has gotten stronger recently and Nantes and Montpellier were both misplaced resulting in the 2nd place finishers in Groups A/B actually having tougher matchups than the 3rd place finishers.  This year Nantes has been given a slot in the upper groups, but Montpellier is still there looming as a likely tougher than deserved Round of 16 opponent.

Here’s how each of the Groups should play out based on the published odds at betbrain.com

Based on these odds, there’s a pretty big gap in quality between the top 6 and Zagreb and Kristianstad.  Zagreb recently signed Zarko Markovic, who’d been playing in Qatar, though, and might be able to crack its way into a Round of 16 slot.  At the upper end of the group, Barca and Vardar are expected to fight for the R16 bye, while R-N L will try to hold off Nantes and Szeged for 3rd.   I’m thinking Nantes is more than capable of doing so and with R-N L playing in the competitive Bundesliga they may be hard pressed to give 100% in all of the CL matches

According to these odds Paris is a heavy favorite to finish first and secure a bye.  While Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel will all jockey for positions 2-5.  This makes sense to me and overall Group B appears to be stronger than Group A.  This means that on paper, the top 5 sides of Group B will make the QF with the most competitive QF being their 5th place finisher being the favorite against Group A’s 4th place team (R-N L or Nantes)

Groups C and D should be pretty much a yawner with only Montpellier being seen as a serious threat to win an R16 matchup.

Round of 16 Predictions

I see no reason to buck the odds listed except in one case.  I’ll go with Zagreb over Wisla Plock in Group A.  In Group B I’ll predict the top 6 listed and for C&D I’ll go with Leon and Montpellier respectively.  I also am OK with the Group A and B favorites, Barca and Paris, winning their groups.

QF Predictions

Here the predictions are a bit fuzzier, but I’ll go with 5 teams from Group B (Paris, Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel) advancing and 3 teams from Group A (Barcelona, Vardar and R-N L).  Potential party crashers again will be those pesky French sides Nantes and Montpellier.

Final Four Predictions

For the Final Four it’s a real shot in the dark as it’s hard to project matchups and who’s playing well next spring.  But, I’ll pick Barcelona, Paris, Kielce and Flensburg.  And, as I’ve been saying for the past couple of years, it’s Paris’ turn.  I’m going to be right one of these years even if Omeyer’s time as an elite goalie is running short.

For the Record…

Last year my predictions about how things will materialize wasn’t exactly right.  Hungary’s Szeged surprised me and finished 3rd in Group Play ahead of Rhein-Neckar.  This gave Szeged an easier route to the QF vs Silkeborg and resulted in Rhein-Neckar losing to Kiel.  Further, Montpellier knocked out Kielce in the Round of 16.  That being said, I had said that if anyone was going to crash the party it would be Szeged and Nantes.  I should have added Montpellier to that list.

But, I will always have my 2013-14 preseason prediction where I nailed the Final Four and the eventual champion, Flensburg, Exactly.  It’s documented on youtube.  See for yourself at the 27:20 and the 30:25 mark.  I don’t care how many horrible predictions I’ve made over the years I’ll always have that.

VIDEO:  2018 Men’s Euro Qualification

 

It’s often the case that qualification for major tournaments in Europe follow a set pattern.  The favorites secure qualification easily and occasionally there’s a halfway interesting match between a couple of teams that are on the fringes of qualifying.

Not so this time around for the 2018 Men’s European Championships Qualification as they head into the final two rounds of matches.  Ridiculously, out of the 28 teams participating in 7 groups of 4, only 3 nations (Spain, Germany and Sweden) have secured qualification and only 1 nation (Latvia) has been eliminated.  Sure, I’ll be shocked if France and Denmark don’t qualify, but they may be joined by some unlikely nations like Portugal, Lithuania and the Netherlands.  While mainstays of major competitions like Iceland, Russia and Poland are on the precipice of elimination.

The good news is that you can see some of these matches on ehfTV.  (I wish there were more, but I won’t complain).  Below is a summary of what’s at stake heading into each match.  As we head into the summer time doldrums, you might want to hold onto these viewing opportunities.  I will put the Full Match On Demand link from ehfTV, so as long as you avoid scores you watch and enjoy on into July and August.

ehfTV: Link

2018 Men’s European Championships Qualification (Wikipedia): Link

Wednesday, 14 June
Group 4: Czech Republic vs Iceland, 1810 CET

Group 4 has seen no favorite emerge and all 4 teams (Czech Republic, Macedonia, Iceland, Ukraine) in the group are level on points with 4 each.  Every game in the group has been won by the home side so far and the Czech Republic is in first place with a GD of +10, while Iceland is in 3rd with a GD of -5.  So a loss here won’t eliminate either team, but Iceland has more to worry with its current negative goal deficit.

Wednesday 14 June
Group 6: Slovakia vs Russia, 2000 CET

Slovakia and Russia are level on points with 2 each, right behind 2nd place Montenegro with 4 points.  Sweden is leading the group with 8 points and is assured of qualification.  It’s pretty much a must win game for both Slovakia and Russia and the winner will likely be level on points with Montenegro heading into their final match this weekend.

Thursday, 15 June
Group 2: Romania vs Belarus, 1800 CET

Belarus is in 2nd place with 5 points and Romania is in 3rd place with 4 points.  This is virtually a “must win” for Romania as a loss here could eliminate them from qualification.  Belarus will also want a win as Romania will leapfrog them in the standing and they face group leaders Serbia in their final match.

Dainis Kristopans, the Tallest Elite Player in the History of the Game?

 Dainis Kristopans currently plays for Meskov Brest, but the Latvian giant will play for Veszprem next season.


Dainis Kristopans currently plays for Meskov Brest, but the Latvian giant will play for RK Vardar next season.

I’ve been catching up on the videos for the Champions League round of 16 and the Final Four and one player that literally stands out is Meshkov Brest’s Dainis Kristopans.  He didn’t have the best performance in the SEHA Final Four, but he was a force to reckon with in the Champions League, and finished the season as the 7th leading scorer with 76 goals.

At 7’1” and 298 lbs it is certainly hard to miss him.  I’m not sure if someone is keeping height stats of professional handball players, but he’s got to be one of the tallest to have ever played the game.  And, in my opinion, he is the tallest elite handball player to ever play the game.  I’m sure there have been taller players, but it’s less doubtful that they could be considered elite.  All too often as players approach 7 feet tall their effectiveness as handball players diminishes.

This seems counterintuitive, but the physical nature and pace of the game starts to negate the height advantage.  In particular, the prototypical back court play of either breaking through the defense or shooting over it can be harder to execute for the taller player.  Sure, the taller player can shoot over, but without the credible threat of beating the defense for a breakthrough, a good defensive player can rough up the player and make that 9-10 meter shot ineffective.  There’s a reason why the typical back court player is in that 6’3” to 6’8” height range and it’s not just because everybody taller decided to take up basketball.  A combination of height, quickness, jumping ability, toughness and throwing ability is needed.  Not to mention smart passing skills.  There’s just not a whole lot of 7 footers out there with that combination.

And, what makes Kristopans interesting is that he doesn’t have that full complement of skills, but has developed a playing style to maximize his height/weight advantage.  He’s never going to out quick his opposition for a breakthrough at 6 meters, but he knows how to position himself for a quality shot at 8 meters. At nearly 300 lbs the defense has to be directly in front of him to stop him.  Finally, he’s also not blessed with great jumping ability, but it doesn’t matter.  He smartly uses his height advantage to wind up and get his shot off over the opposition.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the fact that he’s left handed.  At age 26, RK Vardar was wise to sign him up.  Paired with a quality center back that can set him up on attack, he could inflict some real damage.

A personal side note for some perspective on  height and size.  Back in 1989 at the U.S. Olympic Festival, while standing in line at the cafeteria I had the opportunity to stand next to a 17 year old basketball phenom that everyone was talking about.  His name was Shaquille O’Neal and to this day it is the only time in my life where I just felt puny.  Not just merely shorter, but puny.  I’m 6’5”, about 215 lbs and I’ve stood next to lean 7 footers and it’s just slightly unnerving for a tall guy not used to looking up. But Shaq had a 100 lbs on me, roughly half my body weight and that was totally unnerving.  (And, back then Shaq wasn’t overweight.)  Kristopans isn’t quite 3 bills plus like Shaq was, but he’s approaching it.  Something that defenders have to contemplate when he’s on attack.

That’s my take on this giant of handball, but I’ve only been following the sport closely for 15 years.  If you know of a taller player that still passes muster for “elite” status chime in on Facebook or Twitter to set me straight.

SEHA and German Cup Final 4:  6 Matches Worth Watching on ehfTV

SEHA, rhymes with Hee-Haw, but this league is no joke. Watch the Final Four on ehfTV this weekend.

SEHA, rhymes with Hee-Haw, but this league is no joke.  In fact, it’s arguably the second best league in Europe.  You can see for yourself. Watch the SEHA Final Four on ehfTV this weekend.

Normally, when one thinks of ehfTV, one thinks of the EHF Champions League.  If you enjoyed the Round of 16 the past two weeks like me you may be a little bummed that it is a 2 week wait to the quarterfinals.  Furthermore, if you are an American are suffering from NCAA Final Four withdrawal, I’ve got some good news for you as ehfTV will be showing not 1, but 2 Final Fours this weekend as both the  Southeast Handball Association (SEHA) League and German Cup Finals will be available on ehfTV.

The SEHA League will be playing their semifinals on Friday with Vardar taking on Zagreb and Final Four hosts, Meskov Brest taking on Veszprem.  The SEHA League has only been around for 6 years, but it is quietly establishing itself as one of the best leagues in Europe.  Featuring teams from the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Hungary and Belarus, it can be viewed as a regional champions league.  Not that it’s clubs don’t already play in the Champions League.  In fact, the four finalists all made the Champions League Round of 16 and 2 clubs, Veszprem and Vardar are still in the tournament and could make that Final Four as well.

The German Cup semis will be on Saturday.  Leipzig will play Kiel in the first semi while Rhein Neckar Lowen will play Flensburg in the other semi.  Kiel, RNL and Flensburg are well known sides from Champions League play while Leipzig is a team from the 2nd tier of the HBL.  It will be interesting to see whether they can spring the upset of Kiel.  I for one, though, wouldn’t mind seeing a rematch of the R16 contest between Kiel and RNL in the final

Schedule (All times EDST)

SEHA

Friday, 1130 Vardar vs Zagreb Video
Friday, 1400 Brest vs Veszprem Video
Sunday, 1130 3rd Place Match Video
Sunday, 1400 1st Place Match Video

German Cup

Saturday, 0830 Leipzig vs Kiel Video
Saturday, 1130 RNL vs Flensburg Video
Sunday, 0830 1st Place Match Video (Note: If you don’t want to know who wins cover the picture with a sheet of paper.  THANKS A LOT ehfTV)

Note:  Sometimes the live stream is geo blocked in the U.S., but the on demand video typically shows up a couple of hours after the match.  I will try to provide a direct link to the on demand video for each match on this page when it is available.

If the link isn’t avilable here you can search for the video at ehfTV.  If you’re like me and don’t want to know the final outcome of the match follow these tips

  • Go to the ehfTV website: Link ehftv.com
  • Scroll down until you get to the menu that starts with “Latest Video”
  • Click on “Full Matches”
  • Wait a bit for your screen to load and then scroll down. If the match you want to see is available it should show up on this page  (and hopefully, there isn’t a picture of someone holding a trophy, or A GERMAN TEAM CELEBRATING.  THANKS YET AGAIN, ehfTV!!!! –SARCASM, FULLY INTENDED—)

France 38 – Belgium 37:  Huh? What?  How did that happen and what can be gleaned from that outcome?

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

ehfTV has a lot of matches available in its “on demand” bin and sometimes it takes me awhile to getting around to watching them. A couple of days ago I decided to check out the Belgium – France Euro 2018 qualification match.  I generally prefer to watch matches oblivious to the final outcome and I had avoided the final score of this match.  As if, it really mattered.  Belgium is one of the weaker teams in Europe.  Mostly amateurs and just qualifying for the Group Stage is a major achievement.  Meanwhile France has been consistently the best team in the world for the past 10 years or so.  I figured that I would watch a few minutes of this curiosity and then move along to the next match.  Well, that didn’t happen.  I kept waiting and waiting for a blowout that never happened. Why if Belgium hadn’t lost their team captain, Arber Qeremi, to a red card maybe they would have even won.  How did this happen and what can be gleaned?

The 7 Court Player Strategy for Huge Underdogs

Well, we’ve all seen the impact of the new rule allowing any court player to substitute for the goalie.  Most teams when down a man now empty the net and play with 6 on offense.  And, occasionally we’ve seen teams attack with 7 court players, but this was the first national team match where I’ve seen it pretty much used the entire game.  Most interestingly, it’s the first time I’ve also seen it implemented by an overmatched underdog.  And, Belgium player per player was clearly overmatched.  There’s no doubt in my mind that not a single Belgian player could make the French roster.  Heck, it’s doubtful that any Belgian player would make a roster depth chart that went 10 deep into the French national talent pool.

But, the 7 court player strategy evened out that lack in talent dramatically.  With the extra player Belgium was able to score consistently.  How else to explain 37 goals?  37!  And, they controlled the tempo and had France totally out of their game.  It’s a high reward, high risk strategy, but in this one game the rewards far outweighed the risks.

And, it’s surely a strategy to be duplicated (if, it hasn’t already) by overmatched squads everywhere.  What would Team USA have to lose against Brazil, for instance?  If you’re going to get scored upon anyway at the defensive end, you might as well dramatically increase your scoring percentage at the offensive end.  Sure, you might end up with an uglier score line than you would get with a more conventional game.  But, you also might take a good team down to the wire.

It will be very interesting to see how this tactic plays out in the years to come.  It’s surely to be tried again, but most likely top teams will be better prepared to punish this strategy.  Which leads to a big question mark regarding the French national team.

What’s Going on with France?

France’s inability to secure an easy victory against a team composed almost entirely of amateurs raises some big time questions.  Most notably, why wasn’t the team better prepared?  Why couldn’t the team adapt to the situation?  Here are a few possible answers to that question.

Answer #1) Coach Dinart and Coach Gille are not Ready for Prime Time

Let me go on the record and state what I think is a factual statement:  Didier Dinart is the greatest of all time defensive handball player.  In his prime, for sure, there can be no serious debate that anyone was better at clogging up offenses in the middle of the crease.  It doesn’t show up in a score sheet, but France’s success on the national level for a decade can be closely correlated to his presence.  Heck, to a large extent he created the position of defensive specialist.  Guillame Gille wasn’t quite the player that Dinart was, but he was a reliable mainstay in the backcourt for several years.

But, great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.  And Dinart and Gille have being given the reins to arguably the most historic national team dynasty without either having been a head coach before.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in my opinion.  Sure Dinart has been at Claude Onesta’s side for a couple of years, but that’s no substitute for striking out on your own at some club team and doing the day to day preparation and making the game time adjustments necessary to being a successful coach.  Additionally, and as a former defensive specialist myself I hate to say it, Dinart might well lack the expertise to make smart offensive adjustments.

I’m not sure how the French Federation came up with its succession plan, but I can guess that there’s a few head coaches in the LNH who’ve been plying their trade for years wondering why they didn’t get a shot.  Patrice Canayer of Montpellier certainly has a long track record.

Answer #2) Enough with the Co-Coaching Cop Out

Here’s a list of the great co-coaching duos from all major sports:  crickets, crickets, crickets.  There’s a reason for this:  It just doesn’t work.  There’s a reason virtually all teams have one head coach, businesses have one CEO and nations have one political leader.  You can have debate on the decisions to be made, but there can be only one decider.  And one person ultimately responsible for success or failure.  And, this person has to be clearly identified and given the authority to do their job.  France needs to pick one coach and go with it.

Answer #3) Maybe the New Additions to the Roster aren’t that Good

Finally, maybe the close game has more to do with the players, rather than the coaching.  France did a little experimenting with its roster mixing some newcomers with veterans.  Time was when it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot who was on the court as long as Karabatic was there to direct traffic and make everyone around him look better.  Heck, I’ve joked at times that I could be a decent left back on the French National team if Karabatic was at center.  Well, I think there are some cracks in this maxim.  Karabatic is still a great player, but at 32 he’s showing some signs of age and he’s not quite as unworldly as he has been in the past.  And, the new additions in the backcourt aren’t quite up to Jerome Fernandez and Daniel Narcisse quality.  Or even Accambray level for that matter.  Maybe they will be someday, but they’re not there yet.

Premature Obituary?

It’s usually a mistake to look at one match and to conclude that the house is on fire.  Still, a 38-37 win over Belgium for the defending world champs is a huge red flag.  For a decade or so, France has been the team to beat at every major tournament.  They’ll be hosting the World Championships in France in January, so surely they’ll be favorites again.  But, for once I’m not so sure that’s fully justified.

The EHF Champions League Group Stage:  Mostly Meaningless, but Still Entertaining

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”.  I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

ehfTV Commentator Tom O’Brannigain wrote an interesting commentary a while back taking issue with a German blogger Sascha Staat’s characterization of the Group Stage of the EHF Champions League as meaningless.  Staat’s commentary pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between placing 1st or 6th place, rendering many of the matches meaningless.  And, that this was particularly true for the German clubs that had to cope with the more competitive Bundesliga (HBL) while clubs like Barca and Kielce could coast along in their easy national leagues.

O’Brannigain, counterpoint was that it sure didn’t seem that way from his viewpoint watching the hotly contested matches.  He also pointed out that except for last season, the HBL has largely been dominated by Kiel.

Staat has followed up with a counterpoint which I largely agree with.  I hadn’t seen it, though until I was mostly finished with this commentary.  I’ll amplify some key points though as to why the matches are mostly meaningless, but still quite entertaining.

Round of 16 (if seeded after 5 rounds)

First off, as a reference point let’s take a look at what the Round of 16 matchups would be today after just 5 rounds of group play.  Below are the pairings and how the teams would be grouped for quarterfinal matches. (Barca and Kielce are in first place in Groups A and B respectively, so they would both get a bye to the Quarterfinals.)

Barca (A1) Bye
Szeged (B4) vs Flensburg (A5)

Kielce (B1) Bye
Veszprem (A4) vs Brest (B5)

Paris S-G (A2) vs the winner of Logrono (C1)/Besiktas (D2)
R-NL (B3) vs Bjerringbro (A6)

Vardar (B2) vs the winner of Nantes (D1)/Montpellier (C2)
Kiel (A3) vs Kristianstad (B6)

Taking a look at these pairings, I’ll say with around 95% confidence that the quarterfinals would be

Barca (A1) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) vs Veszprem (A4)
Paris S-G (A2) vs R-NL (B3)
Vardar (B2) vs Kiel (A3)

Honestly, I think the only 2 teams capable of crashing the quarterfinal party are Szeged and surprising Nantes.  But, even then it’s a long shot.  Of course, as Zagreb showed last year, anything can happen.  It’s just not likely, though, that an undermanned team will prevail in a 120 minute aggregate format.

While that’s the scenario for the current standings there’s sure to be some fluctuation over the course of the Group Stage.  Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that in Group A, there is a significant gap in quality between the top 5 (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg) and the bottom 3 (Bjerringbro, Plock and Schaffhausen).  At least I will be very surprised if any of those last 3 teams crack the top 5.

Group B is a little harder to read, and overall I think it is significantly weaker than Group A.  With this group I think the separation line is between the top 3 (Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) and the bottom 5 (Szeged, Brest, Kristianstad, Celje and Zagreb.  Maybe Szeged or Brest are above the line, but I’ve got my doubts.

With Groups C and D (also known as the little kids table) I think whoever gets matched up against the 2nd seed in Group B will have a puncher’s chance of making the quarterfinal, particularly if they play Vardar, but it’s still a longshot.

All told, shuffle the standings for the top 5 in Group A and the top 3 in Group B, however you want I’m betting those 8 teams (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem, Flensburg, Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) will make the quarter-finals.  But, unlike the round of 16 every single one of those quarterfinal clubs will have a realistic expectation of making the final four regardless of who their opponent is.  There won’t be a gimme matchup for any club.

So what’s the point of all this analysis?  Well Staat is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if you make 1st place or 6th place.  At least it matters, if you want a relatively easy round of 16 matchup.  If you’re a top team in Group A, you can be happy with 5th place, but you’ll want to avoid 6th place.  And, if you’re a top team in Group B, you’ll want to avoid dropping down to 4th place.  But, once you are firmly established in the top 5 of Group A or top 3 of Group B it doesn’t matter very much where you end up.  You’re going to get a Round of 16 match you should win and then you’re going to get a challenging quarterfinal.   But Staat has the right sentiment; Win, lose or draw doesn’t it matter a lot, as long as you don’t slip below the demarcation line.

Odds according to Nordic Bet

And, it’s not just me that’s come up with that analysis.  The oddsmakers also see a huge gap in quality as the odds of winning the title drop off dramatically after the top 8 teams.

Paris 2-1
Veszprem 3.4-1
Barca 4.5-1
Kielce 7-1
Kiel 7-1
Flensburg 11-1
R-NL 11-1
Vardar 12.5-1
Szeged 94-1
Plock 94-1
Brest, Celje, Zagreb, Nantes, Bjerringbro Silkeborg, Logrono, Holstebro, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen, Bucharest, Medvedi 249-1
Kristianstad, Metalurg, Elverum, Presov, Besiktas, Braga 749-1
Still Entertaining

But, I’ll give O’Brannigain his due regarding the competitiveness of the matches.  Despite the lack of meaning, so to speak, there’s been a lot of quality, entertaining handball being played.  Players are playing hard and they clearly want to win.  There’s even been a few surprise losses to the top 8 teams, but I still have a hard time believing that those top teams will slide below the demarcation lines in their groups.  For sure they won’t rest their best players in a CL match if that’s in danger of happening.

Other Formats to Consider

Staat also has a point regarding too many teams (6 of 8) reaching the knockout stages.  This all but ensures a team with a losing record will advance.  But, the old format with four teams qualifying wasn’t much better.  This is because the groups had more 2nd tier teams, again ensuring that a top team would reach the Round of 16 unless they suffered a total meltdown.  So, basically the only real difference in the format is that the group stages have more matchups between elite teams.  Overall, this is a good thing even if there aren’t any real consequences to these showdowns.

There’s no perfect format for a league, but in principle when the match outcome has significant consequences you’re going get a more compelling match.  This is why the knockout stages of the CL are so compelling.  And, it’s why the Group Stage matches are not.

If you want to make the Group Stages more compelling you will need to have fewer clubs advancing, but the EHF would also need to make the groups stronger top to bottom.  And, right now the only way to do that would be to add some more German Clubs, which wouldn’t make very many people happy.  The German clubs don’t want more challenging matches in the first place and here you would be adding even more German teams to the fray.  Scandinavia and other leagues are already not happy with the creation of Groups C and D and under this scenario they would be totally pushed out.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you really wanted to get radical you could make the knockout stages more compelling by having more matches of consequence between the elite clubs. Why just play two in the Quarterfinals?  Why not a best of 3 or best of 5 NBA format?  Or better yet skip the Final Four weekend and give handball the full NBA treatment:  play a best of 7 for the semis and finals.  That would be phenomenal!

But, I know that won’t be happening anytime soon due to the number of matches that would have to be played and for how it would mess up the domestic league schedules.  Still, I can dream, can’t I?

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I “HEART” Flensburg

Bold Prediction Comes True.

Bold Prediction Comes True.

This past weekend Flensburg pulled off one of the more unlikely Champions League victories in the history of the sport.  On Saturday in the Semifinals they came back from a 6 goal deficit late in the 2nd half against highly favored Barcelona to send the game into overtime.  Following overtime they then knocked off Barca in penalty shots.  Then on Sunday against favored Kiel they came back again from a 6 goal lead, this time in the first half.  They then built a 4 goal lead and held off Kiel to win their first Champions League Title.  Going into the Final Four they were 10-1 underdogs; the afterthought team just happy to be there.  Who would have thought they could win it all?

Bold Prediction Comes True

Last September I participated in a Champions League Preseason EHF Google Hangout.    During the discussion the moderator noted that teams like Flensburg hadn’t even mentioned.  Seizing the moment, I put on my hat and boldly predicted, “I’ll go on record:  It’s Flensburg’s year.”  (The prediction is at 27:18 LINK)  A little while later we were asked to name our Final Four and I went with Barca, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg.

If you’ve ever been in the predicting business, you know how fraught with peril it is.  Listen to any Sunday talk show or sports radio show.  You’ll hear the politician or blabbermouth run for cover when asked to make a prediction.  Either that or they hedge their bets in a big way.  But, forced to make a prediction I used a little logic and a little bit of what I wanted to have happen and voila I nailed it.  And, this was way back in September…  Why it reminds me of the 1995 NBA playoffs when I made a little bet in Las Vegas on the Houston Rockets when they were down 3 games to 1 to the Phoenix Suns.  Or the time when I predicted that Troy Calhoun would some day become the Head Football Coach at the AF Academy… when he was still a cadet.  Alright, enough gloating.  In the dustbin of my memory there’s surely countless predictions that have been entirely and totally wrong.  Still, for sure, it is still incredibly satisfying to be so entirely and totally correct.

How did an American become a Flensburg Fan anyway?

But, if my bold prediction was partly based on wishful thinking, why on Earth would I be pulling for Flensburg anyway?  I’ve never stepped foot there.  I might never even visit that little city on the Germany-Denmark border.  I don’t speak German or Danish.  I’ve never seen the club play in person.  Why that particular club and not some other?  Heck, I lived in France and I’ve got no particular allegiance to any club there.  Why does this American wear his Flensburg hat all over town and why does he care?  Why did I have the biggest smile on my face yesterday afternoon as they hoisted that trophy?

As often is the case with fandom it’s a combination of historical circumstances, personality and perceived identification.  Here’s some elements as to why I’m a Flensburg fan:

Historical Context:  Back in 2005 as I was just learning about club handball in Europe I had the pleasure to witness the most oddly compelling and dramatic match I’ve ever seen in any sport, let alone handball.  This was the 2nd leg of the Montpellier – Flensburg match where Montpellier scored on a free throw with no time remaining to lose by “only 13” and advance on aggregate.  I wrote about this 9 years ago and I’m still shaking my head as I recall that match.  I was already a fan of handball, but that match really ignited a passion to follow the sport more closely.  It was also my first introduction to the Flensburg club.

An Iconic Star:  After you watch a team play quite a bit and see how individual players carry themselves on the court you start to identify with certain players.  Quite often you see a player’s demeanor, their ability to score in the clutch and their attitude.  If you identify with those characteristics you can’t help but root for those players and their team.  Such a player for me was Lars Christiansen.  Even though he hasn’t worn a Flensburg jersey in four years, some of my fandom surely still can be attributed to him.

Blue Collar Team:  Rightly or wrongly, I perceive Flensburg as a blue collar team of hard working players.  Don’t get me wrong they’ve got some world class players, but they are a notch down from the Barca’s and Kiel’s of Europe.  And, while they’ve got a few hired guns they just don’t feel like a mercenary team.  They play together as a team, not as a team of individual stars.  When they win as they did yesterday it has the feel of a real team celebration and a collective victory.

So, hats off to “my boys” from Flensburg.  Looks like I’ll need a 2014 EHF Champions tournament T-Shirt to go along with my hat.

But, if you want to know who’s going to the Final Four in 2015 and who’s going to win it all there’ll be no more freebies.  You’re going to have to subscribe to my betting service.

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PODCAST: Interview with Handball Commentator, Paul Bray

Paul Bray, the dean of English language handball commentators

Paul Bray, the dean of English language handball commentators

If you’ve been watching the European Handball Championships online you’ve surely heard commentator Paul Bray’s distinct voice and delivery.  You may not be aware, though, that Paul has been a handball commentator now for 25 years.  Back in 2007 at the Handball World Championship in Germany I sat down to discuss his handball background and how he got started as a handball commentator.  We also talked a bit about the then nascent development of handball online web streaming.  Six years later with every match of the European Championships coming through with pretty high quality video and English commentary Paul’s predictions have come true. (Interview is 13 minutes)

Side note:  On many occasions in the past I’ve chastised the EHF for making it very difficult for fans to access on demand matches without first learning the outcome of the matches.  Dead giveaways in the past have included pictures with smiling players being interviews and trophy hoisting celebrations.  So far, with the nondescript Youtube channel it’s been fairly easy for a fan like me who can’t watch matches live to remain oblivious to the outcome prior to watching.  (Yes, in my little world I’ve got some key final main round matches to watch yet.)  Intended or not, thanks for doing this and here’s hoping there isn’t a change in the current posting strategy.

Euro 2014 Full length matches and highlights (on demand):  Link

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VIDEO: Champions League Group Play (Week 7)

Mads Mensah Larsen:  Not your typical Danish Centerback.  Can he orchestrate an upset over Flensburg?

Mads Mensah Larsen: Not your typical Danish Centerback. Can he orchestrate an upset over Flensburg?

Handball fans have one more weekend of Champions League handball before a long dry spell starts.  With the Christmas break and the European Championships taking place Week 8 won’t start until February.  With 6 weeks in the books it’s pretty clear for the most part which 16 teams will advance to the knockout stages.

One exception, however, is this week’s Match of the Week between Celje and Zagreb as both sides are tied for 4th place in Group A.   Zagreb won their first meeting, but Celje is a 2.5 goal favorite this Saturday in Slovenia.  While neither of these two sides have a chance of  making it to the final four this should be an evenly matched game between two sides seeking a ticket to the knockout rounds.  The match will also include Tom Ó Brannagáin’s English language commentary.

Celje vs. Zagreb (Saturday,30 Nov 2030 CET/1430 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

(Note to U.S. residents:  After a two week break beIN Sport will be rebroadcasting the Match of the Week on Wednesday, 4 December, 1700 U.S. Eastern Time)

There are a couple of other matches worth watching.  In Denmark, Aalborg will host Flensburg in a match that could end up deciding who gets 2nd place in Group.  Flensburg were able to turn the tables late in the match against Hamburg last week to strengthen their hold on 2nd place, but an away loss to Aalborg will drop them down to 3rd place.  Flensburg won the first match between the two sides 31-27 but might have a little more trouble winning at Aalborg.  Aalborg is led in scoring by the atypical Mads Mensah Larsen, who’s having a breakout season.  Atypical for two reasons: he’s a Dane of African descent and more bulky and compact then your typical centerback.  ehfTV has a nice Inside the Game feature on him:  Link

Aalborg vs Flensburg (Sunday, 1 Dec 1600 CET/1000 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

The final, maybe interesting match to watch could be Minsk vs Paris.  I say “maybe” because on paper Paris should have no problem with Minsk.  But, Paris has been known so far this season to play down to the level of their competition.  Paris won the first meeting between these two sides, 34-30, but the match was tightly contested until the very end.  With the match in Belarus, Minsk could very well surprise again.

Minsk vs Paris (Sunday, 1 Dec 1700 CET/1100 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

I will replace the live video links with on demand video links when they are available at the ehfTV website.  If you go to the ehf website yourself click on the side arrows to get to the “Full Match” page.  A word of caution, however, the EHF sometimes posts match interviews with revealing titles like “Jicha scores the decisive goal,” so you might want to use a sheet of paper to mask the screen if you want to watch the matches oblivious to the outcome.

ehfTV Page: Link
EHF Week 6 Preview:  Link (A written summary by Bjoen Pazen previewing all 12 matches): Link
Tom Ó Brannagáin’s latest blog post: Link

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VIDEO: Champions League Group Play (Week 6)

Vardar and Metalurg meet again in a Macedonian showdown.

Vardar and Metalurg meet again in a Macedonian showdown.

Week 6 of the Champions League is very much a rerun of Week 5.  This is because the same teams that played in week 5 will play each other again.  Only this time the matches will be played at the other team’s home court.  Since Skopje’s two club sides (Vardar and Metalurg) both play their matches in the same venue this week’s “Match of the Week” is even more of a deja vu event.  Last week Vardar was clearly the better team and Metalurg will need a much better performance if they don’t want to slip into 5th place in Group B.  Sunday’s match in Skopje includes Tom Ó Brannagáin’s English language commentary.

Vardar vs Metalurg (Sunday, 24 Nov 1800 CET/1200 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

(Note to U.S. residents:  beIN Sport, the U.S. TV rights holder has apparently made a programming decision to not broadcast the Champions League this week.  If you want to watch the match you’ll need to do so online at ehfTV.)

The other matches worth watching are again the same as last week’s.  The all German derby moves this week to Flensburg.  Last week Hamburg was clearly the better side winning 32-27 and the win put Hamburg 3 points up on Flensburg in the standings for Group D.  Even with a win tonight (Thursday) Flensburg will still be down a point due to their earlier draw against Naturhouse La Rioja.  But, perhaps Flensburg better be more concerned with simply holding on to second place.  Another loss to Hamburg could very well slip them into 3rd place behind Denmark’s Aalborg.  And with Flensburg travelling to Aalborg next weekend they could face a must win situation there to avoid a challenging Round of 16 opponent.

Flensburg vs. Hamburg (Thursday, 21 Nov 1900 CET/1300 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

The third interesting match will be Kolding’s visit to Kielce on Sunday.  Last week I postulated that if either Kiel or Kielce was going to slip up in Group B it would be on the road at Kolding.  And slip up Kielce did, losing 29-24.  Now a more confident Kolding side will try beating Kielce again this time in a far more difficult setting in Kielce.  One would think that Kielce will take care of business at home, but it will be interesting to see what happens.  And, if you’re a Kolding fan you might even start thinking bigger.  A win at Kielce would put Kolding in the driver’s seat to win the Group.

Kielce vs Kolding (Sunday, 24 Nov 1700 CET/1100 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

I will replace the live video links with on demand video links when they are available at the ehfTV website.  If you go to the ehf website yourself click on the side arrows to get to the “Full Match” page.  A word of caution, however, the EHF sometimes posts match interviews with revealing titles like “Jicha scores the decisive goal,” so you might want to use a sheet of paper to mask the screen if you want to watch the matches oblivious to the outcome.

ehfTV Page: Link
EHF Week 6 Preview:  Link (A written summary by Bjoen Pazen previewing all 12 matches)
Tom Ó Brannagáin’s latest blog post: Link
Audio of Tom Ó Brannagáin’s interview with Pascal Hens and Hans Lindbergh: Link

 

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VIDEO: Champions League Group Play (Week 5)

Flensburg beat Hamburg at home last Sunday 31-29.  Will Flensburg return the favor this Saturday in a Champions League showdown?

Flensburg beat Hamburg at home last Sunday 31-29. Will Flensburg return the favor this Saturday in a Champions League showdown?

After a 3 week break the Champions League is now back for 3 consecutive weeks. This week’s “Match of the Week” has two top German sides (Flensburg and Hamburg) facing off in a derby to decide who will sit at the top of the standings in Group D. Hamburg currently lead the group with an unblemished 4-0-0 record while Flensburg is a point behind due to their draw in week 4 against Naturhouse La Rioja. Separated by 100 miles these two sides know each other very well. In fact, last year by some quirks in scheduling they ended up playing each other 7 times. So far this year, they’ve only met once with Flensburg beating Hamburg 31-29 last Sunday in an HBL matchup. Saturday’s match is in Hamburg and includes Tom Ó Brannagáin’s English language commentary.

Hamburg vs. Flensburg (Saturday, 16 Nov 1445 CET/0845 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

If you can’t catch the match live it will also be available later “on demand”.   (Note to U.S. residents:  It appears that beIN Sports, the U.S. TV rights holder, has decided to not broadcast this week’s Match of the Week.)

The other big match of the week is a showdown derby Thursday night in Macedonia, between Skopje’s Vardar and Metalurg clubs. Both sides have shown their worthiness in the Champions League this season as neither Barca or Paris were able to travel to Skopje and leave with a victory. This time around, however, there will be no overwhelming home crowd as both clubs will be represented at the Boris Trajkovski Arena. (Currently, I’m planning to do an audio commentary that you can synch up with the video and that will likely be available Friday morning.)

Metalurg vs Vardar (Thursday, 14 Nov 2000 CET/1400 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

The one other match I’ll be checking out this weekend is Kolding vs. Kielce on Sunday. Thanks to their victory in week 4 over Kiel, Poland’s Kielce is all alone in first place in Group B. In all likelihood, the winner of the Group will come down to the second Kiel-Kielce showdown, but if either of those two slides is going to slip up, the most likely place they’ll do so is their away match at Denmark’s Kolding.

Kolding vs Kielce (Sunday, 17 Nov 1700 CET/1100 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

I will replace the live video links with on demand video links when they are available at the ehfTV website. If you go to the ehf website yourself click on the side arrows to get to the “Full Match” page. A word of caution, however, the EHF sometimes posts match interviews with revealing titles like “Jicha scores the decisive goal,” so you might want to use a sheet of paper to mask the screen if you want to watch the matches obliious to the outcome.

ehfTV Page: Link

EHF Week 5 Preview: Link (A written summary by Bjoen Pazen previewing all 12 matches)

Tom Ó Brannagáin’s latest blog post: Link

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VIDEO: Champions League Group Play (Week 2)

MOTW

This week’s “Match of the Week” has the two pre-season favorites in Group A facing off as Hungary’s Veszprem hosts Germany’s Rhein-Neckar Lowen. Last week Rhein Neckar escaped with a draw against Ukraine’s HC Motor Zaporozhye while Veszprem easily took care of St Petersburg. Veszprem is a 3.5 goal favorite. The Match of the Week is the ehfTV marquee game and includes Tom Ó Brannagáin’s English language commentary.

Veszprem vs. Rhein-Necker (Sunday, 28 Sep 1700 CET/1100 U.S. Eastern Time)
Video: Link

If you can’t catch the match live it will also be available later “on demand”. Further, U.S. residents with beIN Sport can also catch a retransmission on Monday, 30 September at 1700 (Eastern Time).

Other matches worth checking out this weekend include:

Dunkerque vs Wisla Plock (Saturday, 27 Sep 1600 CET/1000 U.S. Eastern Time)
France likes to think it now has the world’s 2nd best national league, but Dunkerque lost by 10 to Poland’s Kielce last week. This week they are at home against another Polish side which narrowly lost to Kiel the week before. The linesmakers have this match as a “pickem”
Video: Link

HC Metalurg vs Paris St Germain (Saturday, 27 Sep 1800 CET/1200 U.S. Eastern Time)
On paper, with its new signings and loaded roster Paris is a contenter for the title. So far this season, however, they’ve failed to impress. Last week they pulled ahead at home to beat Minsk 34-30, but the game was a lot closer than the final score. A road trip to Macedonia will be a good test for their mettle. Paris is a 3.5 goal favorite.
Video: Link

Aalborg vs Logrono (Sunday, 28 Sep 1700 CET/1100 U.S. Eastern Time)
Both these sides lost last week and are looking for their first win in the competition. Logrono (Naturhous La Rioja) is the other Spanish team (aside from favorite Barca) and I’ll be watching their performance to see just how far the Liga Asobal has slipped. Aalborg is a 2 goal favorite.
Video: Link 

I will replace the live video links with on demand video links when they are available at the ehfTV website. If you go to the ehf website yourself click on the side arrows to get to the “Full Match” page. A word of caution, however, the EHF sometimes posts match interviews with revealing titles like “Jicha scores the decisive goal,” so you might want to use a sheet of paper to mask the screen if you want to watch the matches oblivious to the outcome.

ehfTV Page: Link

EHF Week 2 Preview: Link (A written summary by Bjoern Pazen previewing all 12 matches)

Tom Ó Brannagáin’s latest blog post: Link