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

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VIDEO: EHF Champions League “Match of the Week” returns

Wisla-Kiel

Just a reminder that Champions League Group Play has started and the first ehfTV Match of the Week is later today as Poland’s Wisla Plock hosts Germany’s Kiel.  Wisla Plock knocked off France’s perennial power, Montpellier in a wild card playoff to reach the group stage, now they will try to upend traditional German power, Kiel in week 1.  Kiel is a 2.5 goal favorite.

The match will be available live on the ehfTV web streaming platform today (22 September) at 1700 Central European Time or 1100 U.S. Eastern Time.   English language commentary will be provided by the always energetic, Tom Ó Brannagáin.

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, 23 September at 1700 (Eastern Time)

Additionally, all of the matches of week 1 are available for viewing and without giving away details there are a few surprises.  Check out the links below:

Wisla Plock vs Kiel Video (On Demand): Link

All Matches (On Demand): Link  (Warning:  There currently isn’t a way to go directly to the On-Demand matches without being exposed to some content revealing the outcome of matches)

EHF Week 1 Preview:  Link (A written summary by Bjoen Pazen previewing all 12 matches)

Tom Ó Brannagáin’s latest blog post: Link

Google Hangout preview of the season:  Link

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VIDEO: EHF Champions League Panel Discussion

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This “expert” thinks its Flensburg’s turn.

The European Handball Federation (EHF) hosted a panel discussion earlier today on this season’s Champions League competition.  Team Handball News’ John Ryan, was part of the esteemed panel which also included handball journalists Björn Pazen and Grega Sever and the voice of ehfTV,  Tom Ó Brannagáin.

Video (EHF Champions League website):  Link
Video (EHF Youtube Channel): Link

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VIDEO/AUDIO Wisla Plock vs. Montpellier

 

Wisla Plock's Muhamed Toromanović taking a shot vs Montpellier.

Wisla Plock’s Muhamed Toromanović taking a shot vs Montpellier.

France’s Montpellier and Poland’s Wisla Plock battled it out over two games to see which side would earn the right to play in the Champions League this season.  Montpellier won the first match at home, 29-27 this past Thursday.  On Sunday they traveled to Poland for the second leg.  The video for the match is courtesy of ehfTV and my audio commentary is in the MP3 files below.

The first half segment has a synchronization count at 3:00 on the ehfTV clock in the lower left hand of the screen.  Start the video and pause it at 3:00. Then open the MP3 file and when I start my synchronization count unpause the video.

For the 2nd half my synchronization count starts at 48:30

Wisla Plock vs. Montpellier Video: Link

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The Dramatic Decline of the Liga Asobal

Spanish Exodus

Player Exodus: Where 11 of 16 players from Spain’s 2013 World Championship Team will play their club handball this season
José Manuel Sierra, Paris (France)
Antonio García, Paris (France)
Alberto Entrerríos, Nantes (France)
Jorge Maqueda, Nantes (France)
Valero Rivera, Nantes (France)
Ángel Montoro, Toulouse (France)
Joan Cañellas, Hamburg (Germany)
Gedeón Guardiola. Rhein-Neckar (Germany
Julen Aguinagalde, Kielce (Poland)
Carlos Ruesga, Veszprem (Hungary)
Albert Rocas, Kolding (Denmark)
5 players (Arpad Sterbik, víctor Tomás, Dani Sarmiento, Viran Morros and Aitor Ariño) will remain in Spain and play for Barcelona.

The Spanish National Team player exodus  and Barca’s domination definitively show how this once mighty league has fallen on hard times.

The Great Recession has pretty much impacted in the entire world, but in Spain the crisis has been felt particularly hard.  Property value that once soared to record heights tumbled precipitously leading in turn to banking problems and soaring unemployment.  While a major sport like soccer has been able to weather the storm, handball clubs have had more trouble.  The first warning signs were reports of some of the bottom tier teams in the Liga Asobal not being able to make payroll.  This led to many 2nd tier professional players from other European countries deciding that they were better off playing elsewhere.  Only the two top clubs, Ciudad Real and Barcelona, were able to keep their top players, but then Ciudad Real started to show cracks in its finances with a sudden relocation/merger with Atletico Madrid in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.  A move that merely postponed that reality to 2013.

Long Odds

With Madrid Atletico’s demise the Liga Asobal has gone from a marginally interesting two horse race between Madrid and Barcelonal to a ridiculously one sided coronation for Barca.  How ridiculous?  Well, the current odds of Barca not winning the Liga Asobal are 200-1.  Online sports books have even posted odds for second place since the mere thought of another side winning seems too remote of a possibility.  Yes, Barcelona is a great side and they are even the top favorite to win the Champions League, but barring a betting scandal (certainly a possibility with one recent roster addition) the only item of possible interest in the Liga Asobal is whether they will run the table with an undefeated season.  And, I haven’t seen the odds on that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they aren’t something like 1-10.

For several years the Liga Asobal had been regarded along with Germany’s HBL as one of the two top professional leagues in the world.  One just had to look at the club rosters and point to the who’s who list of top players from other countries to see that the league was loaded with talent.  Jackson Richardson, Jerome Fernandez and Didier Dinart from France;  Ivano Balic, Mirza Dzomba and Igor Vori from Croatia; Tomas Svensson and Jonas Kallman from Sweden; Olafur Stefansson from Iceland; Mikkel Hansen from Denmark; Kiril Lazarov from Macedonia, Lazlo Nagy from Hungary and many more.  And surely Talant Dushebajev and his son Alex would not be Spanish citizens if not for the opportunities Spain provided for a talented handball player.  Yes, for many years, with few exceptions, the top players of the world had two options if the wanted to maximize their salary potential:  play in either Spain or Germany.

The Spanish Exodus

Now outside of Barca there’s only a smattering of foreign players in the Liga Asobal.  And many of these foreign players are actually lesser known talents from Latin America.  Even more telling is the exodus of Spanish National Team players to other leagues in Europe.  Previously, it was somewhat of a novelty to see a Spaniard playing anywhere else but Spain.  Now with Madrid’s demise it’s commonplace.  The map above highlights where 11 members of Spain’s January World Championship team are now playing professionally.  And this doesn’t include other notable players like Berlin’s Iker Romero and several 2nd tier players who’ve also left Spain in search of greener pastures.

Tax breaks and subsidies

When I first started following professional club handball 10 years ago I was puzzled as to why Spain rivaled Germany as the world’s top league.  The primary confusion for this American was simply a glance into the stands at the occasional Champions League match I saw played there and at a 30 minute weekly Liga Asobal highlight show.  With a few notable exceptions there were always more empty seats than fans in the stands.  A sharp contrast to the typical HBL match where the attendance was much stronger.  And even the typical match in France seemed to have more fans.  How do these Spanish Clubs pay higher salaries if they’re bringing in less revenue this Capitalist American wondered?

Insight into this answer came from another sport, basketball, where my club in France, Levallois had a professional team in the 2nd division.  As often is the case in Europe, there were usually a couple of Americans playing for the club and their salary was often a significant part of the club payroll.   One season an American playing for the club decided that he wanted more money, in the middle of the season, no less.  Being an uninformed American I assumed my club had two basic choices:  1) They could bow to the demand and pay him more; or 2) They could refuse the demand (after all, he signed the contract) and have a somewhat disgruntled player for the rest of the season.  But, this was France and the tax structure offered a 3rd choice:  They could pay his salary for the rest of the season and send him away; recoup the tax money on his remaining salary; and then use that money to hire another American for the remainder of the season.  And this is what my club did; Successfully, I might add as they moved up into the 1st division that season.

Further research and discussion with my teammates brought up a sore spot in regards to Spain.  The amount that Spanish sports clubs have to pay in taxes is a pittance compared to other countries.  And in some instances cities even provided substantial funds to clubs in the form of subsidies.  These tax breaks and subsidies were the primary reasons why Spanish clubs are were able to pay better salaries despite less revenue being brought in.  The chickens, however, have come home to roost as the financial crisis has resulted in a general collapse in municipal revenues and subsidies have dried up.  Further causing pain has been a decrease in fan discretionary spending causing significant revenue declines.  A double whammy if you will.

Barca Survives (or should I say thrive?)

So while the rest of the Liga Asobal crumbles around it Barca is still a shining beacon for Spanish Club Handball.  Arguably, they are the best team in the world.  How do they do it?  It’s certainly not due to an adoring fan base.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a Champions League match with the stands of the Palau Blaugrana half full (or worse) for an attractive match against a top club.  No, Barcelona Handball survives, or more accurately thrives, on the shoulders of Barcelona Football.  With a net worth of $1 Billion dollars the club can afford to throw a few millions at its handball club.  Why, it chooses to do so is less clear.  Perhaps it simply relishes the “mother club” aspect and the prestige of being the best in Europe in multiple sports.  The fact that it is an association with 170,000 members also surely has something to do with it.  It’s one thing for an individual owner to say, “I’m not going to keep spending money on this minor sport if it runs a net deficit year after year” and another thing for a collective to make such a decision.

The recession, however has even hit Barca football and the team has been running a debt in recent years.  Perhaps belt tightening will even hit Barca handball soon.  With the further weakening of its competition in the Liga Asobal, Barca could drop 3 or 4 name players and still run away with the title.  And they would still be competitive in the Champions League, just not a dominant player.

Who knows what the future will bring?  All I can say is that if anybody told me 5 years ago there would be more Spanish National Team players in France (then the reverse) in 2013 I wouldn’t have believed them.

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Impressions from the IHF and EHF Junior and Youth Championships

Danish gold medal winners in Youth World Championships

Danish gold medal winners in Youth World Championships

When teams and spectators are now getting ready to focus on the start of the new league season in Europe and the EHF club competitions, one may almost forget that the summer period is really full of activities for both the IHF and the EHF, with a focus on the younger age groups. This is of course in addition to the many outdoor youth events and the beach handball competitions.

For some handball fans, the youth and junior events tend to be relatively less interesting. The players are not yet so well known, the relative strength of the participating nations is not so predictable and varies from year to year, and the performances are more difficult to assess. But many of those aspects may be precisely what make these events so dynamic and attractive. It seems to me that there is a special delight in discovering new talents and speculating about their potential careers. And I am sure that scouts for top club teams also find this discovery process quite important. And now we have a much better opportunity to follow these events, thanks to live webcasts of reasonable quality.

For the young players who have already entered the pipelines of their respective national federations, these IHF and EHF championships have the potential of providing four straight years of international competition during their formative years. Even if their team does not qualify for the World or European Championships, there are qualifying rounds which also bring an intensive level of competition and exposure. Of course, these events also tend to put pressure on the young players, as could recently be seen at the men’s Youth (18 and under) World Championship in Hungary. While the clearly strongest teams did manage to find their way through to the medals, there was a sense of fatigue and general decline in quality in the final stages. Perhaps the format, which requires nine games for the medal teams, may have contributed.

In this Youth Championship, the tendency was the same as what I described some time ago from the Junior (20 and under) event. Only a handful of non-European teams were competitive, with Brazil taking ninth place, while Egypt and Qatar placed 14th and 15th. Moreover, the performances of most of the other non-Europeans were even weaker than in the Junior event. What will the IHF do to try to help remedy this situation? Just providing the opportunity to participate and then be really inferior is clearly not the answer.

The medal winners in the Youth event were Denmark, Croatia and Germany, with Spain, Norway and Sweden rounding out the top six. If one looks at the ‘combined’ results of the Youth and Junior events, it seems clear that the teams that currently are at the top among the adults also dominate in the younger categories. The semifinalists in the Junior event were Sweden, Spain, France, Croatia. Brazil ahead of Egypt were the prominent non-Europeans also in this event. Slovenia, Serbia and Hungary were among the top dozen in both events. The only ‘outsiders’ were the Netherlands and Switzerland who came in fifth and seventh in the Junior event.

While the women this year had their ‘internal’ European events, they should also get a few words. Russia, despite falling behind a bit in the senior women events recently, showed that there is no lack of talent on the women’s side, as evidenced by gold among the 19-year olds and silver for the 17-year olds. Denmark got bronze in both categories, with Norway and Romania also showing strength in both events. The real surprise was presumably the gold for Sweden in the younger event, where also Portugal exceeded expectations with a fourth place. The remaining medal winner was Hungary among the 19 year olds. So now it will be interesting to keep this year’s results and star players in mind, when we follow the senior teams in a few years!