Perhaps the beginning of a wonderful rivalry

Netherlands ask for World Cup dance
The start of a wonderful handball rivalry

By Till Erdenberger, Katowice

For the first time ever, a German and a Dutch men’s national handball team will meet at eye level. There is no rivalry, but a team will have a problem afterwards.

No, no, there is no rivalry between the handball players of the Netherlands and those of the German team. After the thrashing of Argentina (39:19) at the start of the main round of the World Cup, the DHB pros looked more irritated than wanting to allow themselves to be given a pithy declaration of war in the direction of the upcoming opponent in the interviews. “Like football, you mean?” asked one.

Where is it supposed to come from? At club level, Dutch teams play no role at all internationally, there is no shared heated European history. But at least: “It’s not as explosive as in football,” says left winger Lukas Mertens. “Meanwhile there is a lot of fire in there because the Dutch have developed a lot in recent years.

Patrick Groetzki noticed: “I’ve never played against them.” The right winger is the most experienced professional in national coach Alfred Gislason’s squad. In the evening (8.30 p.m. / ARD and in the live ticker on Groetzki makes his 163rd international match, the first against the Netherlands. And it’s an important one: It’s about the World Cup quarter-finals.

In the Netherlands they are working hard and extremely successfully to write their own handball history – and to play regularly against the international top teams in the future. In Poland, they are at a World Cup for the first time since 1961. In terms of sport, the team, which is peppered with numerous Bundesliga professionals, did not qualify, after an away win in Portugal they lost the second leg a little too clearly. But the world association IHF recognized the development of Dutch handball with a wild card. They finished tenth at the EM 2022, the second ever in the history of the association.

“Sensational development”

A “sensational development” was attested by Germany’s backcourt player Kai Häfner before the start of the main round, in which the Netherlands started with a win against Qatar and were thus able to keep the dream of the quarter-finals alive. They fully justify the IHF’s trust: “I have a fantastic squad, the players want to keep developing. Of course, that’s a lot of fun for me as a coach,” says coach Staffan Olsson about his team.

The Swede took over the project last August, a few months later the team is a serious candidate for a World Cup quarter-finals – and with a very unique, rather unconventional style of play: “The Dutch are really good, they switch from defense to attack very quickly . We have to do a lot of things right to win,” warned the national coach. The Dutch have to find solutions quickly and creatively because the big shooters are missing for many “simple” goals from a distance. Luc Steins is primarily responsible for the solutions. The director has been directing the star ensemble of Paris Saint-Germain since 2020 and has grown into a world-class man himself over the years.

“Of course we always say that the team is the most important thing,” said Olsson before the start of the tournament about the 1.73 meter tall playmaker, “that certainly applies to us too, but it would be ridiculous to deny that Luc is our most important player, he’s a shining star in our team.But the way he plays makes the other players important too.At the 2020 European Championships, which was the first for which the Dutch men were able to qualify, they had – all of them Steins in front – the German team annoyed for a long time.The DHB team was only able to organize a clear victory (35:23) late at the time, at halftime they were only one goal ahead.Steins, who was named player of the game at the time, scored six times .

Remembering a golden generation

At the current World Cup, after two victories over North Macedonia and Argentina, the biggest exclamation mark was a defeat: With five goals in the preliminary round final, they were still leading shortly after halftime against the secret favorite Norway, in the end the Netherlands lost 26:27. “We pushed everything. Yes, I think fatigue played a role. You could see that we started making mistakes, both in defense and in attack,” analyzed Olsson. “I had a good feeling beforehand and that’s why I’m the most disappointed now, so soon after the game. But we’ve learned a lot. We keep our confidence.”

Olsson is making a big comparison for his team these days. Perhaps the greatest that is possible in European handball: “This team reminds me of my beginnings as a Swedish international,” the 58-year-old told the newspaper “De Volkskrant” before leaving for Poland. “We weren’t very good then either. Because of the atmosphere and the way this team works together, I feel like I did back then, I feel like I’m 25 again.”

“Always a Big Fight”

You have to know: Staffan Olsson won two world championship titles and three Olympic silver medals as a player with his golden Swedish generation around the handball player of the century Magnus Wislander. He doesn’t notice any rivalry, said the highly decorated handball legend with a smile – “but I also come from Sweden.” The explosiveness of the game results from the constellation this time: If the Netherlands lose, the quarter-finals are gone and Germany is in the knockout stages. If they manage to create a sensation against their big neighbors, they can continue to hope.

And then there is a bit of rivalry, even beyond looking at the group table: “Many of us play in the Bundesliga. We want to show that we can play handball well,” said Dani Baijens from HSV Hamburg. And Magdeburg’s Kay Smits emphasized: “Germany versus Holland is always a big fight. We’re ready and we’re very keen.”

Now you meet for the first time ever in a game that is decisive for both teams, even if not quite on an equal footing. The German team is the favourite. A great rivalry isn’t born in one game, but at least you can get each other in trouble in the evening. No matter how things turn out today, the associations should take it sporty: In 2025 they will jointly organize the women’s world championship.

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