When the German women failed to qualify for the main round in the European Championship last December, one thought that this was about as low as it could get for German handball. The German women just needed to avoid losing by more than 7 goals in a game against a mediocre team from Ukraine, and miraculously the Germans lost by 9. This meant that the team will now have to face the strong Hungarians in play-off games for the right to participate in the Women’s World Championship in November. And if they should fail to qualify, then the chances of participating in the 2012 Olympics are also gone.
But most observers figured that the Germans, one of the traditional powers of handball and the base for the superior Bundesliga, would get their revenge in the Men’s World Championship. After all, the Germans won the gold as recently as in 2007, albeit with a bit too much advantage of playing at home. And they were close to the medal round in 2009, so surely they would be at roughly the same level again!?
Of course, the German coach/icon, Heiner Brand, had done his best in recent months to sound pessimistic and frustrated. He had talked about injury problems, the lack of adequate time of preparation for the team due to the Bundesliga schedule, and also the notion that German players were being ‘crowded out’ by all the foreign star players in the Bundesliga and therefore not getting enough playing time. It almost sounded as if Heiner Brand wanted to set up an alibi in the case of a negative surprise.
I think one than needs to point out that Germany has two goalkeepers of absolute top class, and that among the court players there were 7 players with 90-170 international games to their credit, and another 5 with 40-70 games. Not exactly an inexperienced group… And do not tell me that anyone on the German team is seriously lacking in playing time in Bundesliga. It may turn out that some younger talents who have been on junior national teams but have not yet reached the level of the senior team are having their opportunities affected to some extent. But there can be no suggestion that the Germans are worse off then their counterparts from other countries, many of whom spend their year playing for clubs in mediocre leagues.
In any event, the German team did not look like it usual self in the preliminary round. They benefitted from the fact that the Tunisians and Egyptians were not nearly as strong as in recent years. In the game against a Spanish team that did not seem to wake up until half-way through Championship, the Germans really had the game in their hands but managed to throw it away despite their many experienced players and really strong goalkeeping.
In the main round, they seemed to come with a new attitude, taking on the previously undefeated Icelandic team with a spirited style and lots of energy. They won the game, perhaps in part by being allowed to play an overly physical game, but it seemed that they might now be ready to win their next two games and protect their small chance for a semi-final slot. But instead it was back to the listless style, and both games were lost. The Germans mostly looked confused and helpless on the attack, and without the necessary cohesiveness on defense. So the only win came in the placement game against Argentina, where Germany after much effort managed to win by one goal and avoid the bottom ranking among the teams in the main round.
Shocked German supporters and journalists seemed to have difficulties in understanding what had happened. This result now means that Germany failed to secure a slot in the qualification tournaments for the Olympian Games. The only remaining chance would come through a sudden resurge and a top position in the European Championship next January.
Heiner Brand has a contract through the next World Championship in 2013, but there was strong speculation that he would announce his early resignation directly after the game against Argentina. What has now instead happnened is that he has announced he will stay on under ‘certain conditions’. And here we are back to the issues of more preparation time for the national team, at the expense of the Bundesliga schedule. And the issue of limiting the contracting of foreign players on the Bundesliga teams again seems to be back. But the Bundesliga clubs quickly have shown a lack of sympathy, and the the German Federation vice-president has already speculated in public that Brand might soon decide to resign after all.
What a mess! Clearly the German handball ‘pyramid’ is still capable of fostering young talents, if one judges from results in European and World Championships at the youth level, so the long-term prospects do not seem so bleak. And like most traditional ‘powerhouses’, the Germans must accept that there are some ups and downs, so that medals cannot be guaranteed in every World Championship. But right now it seems that the Federation, the Bundesliga and all other stakeholders really need to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and start pulling in the same direction. German handball fans will to some extent be absorbed by the fate of their club teams, but they will not have a lot of patience with two faltering national teams!