Podcast (Episode 37) EHF Final Four: An Emotional, Cathartic Experience for America’s #1 Handball Fan

My new friend, Michel, and I celebrate Montpellier’s unlikely return to the top of Europe.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Velux EHF Final Four in Cologne, Germany.  Six days later I’m just starting to come down from the “high” of doing so.  I’ll touch on a number of items.

What an Experience!

From the moment I arrived in Cologne it was simply special to be surrounded by so many reminders (signage, flags, etc) that this was the mecca for handball.  The opening night party with the club fans cheering on their teams introduction was also special and a reminder that I was now here in the center of the handball world.

But, stepping foot in the LanXess arena as just 1 amongst 18,000 fans was truly a cathartic experience for this American handball fan.  This is because virtually every match I’ve witnessed or played in my home country has been in front of nobody or perhaps a few other players.  I’ve watched games on my computer at home by myself.  I’ve grown a bit tired of explaining the game that I am so passionate about to others.  I’ve come to accept that I’m a bit of an anomaly in my own little cocoon of a world.

In the LanXess arena, though, that feeling of being the sole outlier evaporated in an instant.  It’s a great feeling for even just one weekend to be part of a throng instead of a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.  It’s a long way to get there, but attending at least one Final Four should be on every handball fan’s bucket list.

A Really, Really, Really Unlikely Final (as in 2,400 to 1 at the start of the season)

Choosing which side to cheer on Saturday in the semifinals was pretty easy for me.  If you don’t have a team you root for the underdogs.  And both Nantes and Montpellier clearly fit into that category.  Last September I wrote an article highlighting the odds for each team winning the upcoming Champions League.  In the article I also provided a few predictions of my own and it included this little gem of prophecy:

“Potential party crashers again will be those pesky French sides Nantes and Montpellier.”

But, before I get all braggadocious of my prognostication skills let’s be clear:  I was just referring to “possible” Round of 16 upsets.  Not the freakin Championship match!  Get out of here!  What were the preseason odds to win the Champions League for those two sides?  Nantes was listed at 65 to 1.  Montpellier was listed at 150 to 1.

And what would the odds have been for a quinella bet for those two sides to meet in the final?  I’m guessing that such a bet wasn’t offered anywhere, but if it had been offered here’s the back of the envelope calculations for that match up.  Since winning it all was 65 to 1 and 150 to 1, one can roughly assume that the odds for just reaching the final would be half that (32 to 1 and 75 to 1).  And, then the odds for both occurring is a simple multiplication of those two odds, which equates to 2,400 to 1.

For context, this would be roughly the equivalent of an NBA preseason bet for a projected #8 and #6 meeting in the finals.  Every once in a while you can picture one team coming out of nowhere, but you just don’t expect 2 teams to do so in the same year.

Montpellier, Montpellier, Montpellier 

The unlikely final matchup made it a bit more challenging for me to pick a side on Sunday.  Or, did it?

Time for a bit of a diatribe here, but it’s necessary for full context.  Many readers already know, but as a reminder, I lived in France from 2002-2007.  And, if you were a handball fan living in France during that time frame, you got to see Montpellier play… a lot.  You really had no choice in the matter.  Watch Montpellier (yet again) or don’t watch handball.  Back in 2005 one of my first blog postings lamented this reality with a commentary listing my “Top 10 reasons why I love to hate Montpellier handball.”  I say lamented, but to be honest I really enjoyed “hate watching” Montpellier quite a bit.  Yes, rooting against the NY Yankees of French Handball was just as much fun as rooting against the NY Yankees, New England Patriots and the Golden St Warriors.

After leaving France I continued to follow the French League from afar, but with no league matches available for viewing I could only see the French qualifiers in Champions League matches.  The French league faded from my consciousness.  But, then in 2012 the French League and Montpellier made the news in a big way with the infamous betting scandal.  With several Montpellier players including the Karabatic brothers being implicated and eventually found guilty.  Ha, ha, I said to myself from afar as Montpellier got their comeuppance.

But, then in the aftermath a couple of things happened that got me rethinking Montpellier and its place in French Handball.  First, Montpellier, both their management and their fans handled a very bad situation about as well as they could.  Montpellier cleaned house and got new players.  Their performance dipped, but those Montpellier fans stayed with them.  Begrudgingly, I had to recognize that.

And, then Paris St-Germain invested in Paris handball in a big way.  Qatari money poured in creating a new super team of stars.  They even brought the Karabatic brothers back to France.  I may have once called Montpellier the NY Yankees of France, but PS-G has clearly taken over that mantle with a budget that dwarfs the rest of the league.

Coming Full Circle in Cologne

Sunday’s final was a tour de force for French Handball.  The little league with annually, maybe a quarterfinal participant now had 2 teams facing off against each other in the final.  It was a wonderful atmosphere and a great first half between two sides, both with passionate fans.  At halftime, I decided that the only real way to watch the rest of this match was with those fans.  So I left my seat and made my way to the purple corner of Nantes.  I stood behind the loud and boisterous contingent as they cheered on their team and reacted to every play.  After a while, though, I reflected that I was with the wrong team and found my way to the opposite corner.  To the team that I had “hate watched” so many, many times.

“Really?”  I thought to myself.  “Am I really going to jump on the Montpellier bandwagon?”

Yes, wholeheartedly.  It was the right thing to do.  As the game wound down the fans around me genuinely relished in their victory.  They cheered on their players who later joined them in celebration.

Afterwards, I searched for a Montpellier fan who spoke good English and Michel was kind enough to join me to discuss the experience, the team and their road to redemption.   The interview is about 9 minutes and the link is at the top of the page.

At the end of the interview I reflect a bit on how I’ve come full circle and probably should get a scarf and join the Blue Fox (Montpellier’s fan club).  At which point Michel’s wife reached into her purse and immediately took care of my wish.

I’ve had a lot of great handball experiences in my life and a lot of mementos to remember them, but right now my Blue Fox scarf is my most prized handball possession.

Allez, Allez, Montpellier!