When the Olympics start for the German handball players, a mission that seems to have lasted forever will come to an end. And led over high peaks and through deep valleys. Towards a goal that was controversial. No matter how it ends: It is getting boring in German handball.
The Olympic sport works in Olympic circles of four years, in times of pandemics they also last five years. That’s how long many athletes work towards the big event. Success at the Olympics is the longing goal, especially for those athletes who are overshadowed by the billion-dollar football show. So for almost everyone. Also for handball players. But they, at least the Germans, have been working on Olympic gold in Tokyo for eight years now. It’s a tremendous start-up.
In 2013, Bob Hanning surprised the handball world with the challenge: “Our goal is gold at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” announced the handball official there, who had just been elected Vice President of the German Handball Federation. The announcement was astonishing because handball traditionally sells rather cautiously, especially in comparison to football, which is traditionally marketed with legs apart, especially back then. After the intoxicating frenzy at the home World Cup in 2007, which ended with the world championship title, the big effect had fizzled out, the association had not been able to secure its success in the long term.
The brisk appearance of the Essen native caused astonishment – and to this day, former and current handball greats are working on this one sentence. For eight years it has hovered over every appearance of the German national team, in success and failure. Hanning defends him with claws and an iron will against any attack. In the end, even against historically poor results.
The way led further and further away from gold
Hanning is a handball specialist, also one who has mastered (self) staging. The flashy outfits with which the functionary travels to major events are legendary as well as controversial. Of course, Hanning does and says things that polarize. Quite a few will be happy when the 50-year-old disappears from the immediate environment of the national team. But Hanning also knows that in the shadow of the overpowering football, only those who have spectacles, heroic stories or at least dramas to sell can at least reasonably prosper. Or at least a deep fall. So the goal that you have been working towards since then.
2016 was almost a golden year, Germany surprisingly became European champions in January, against numerous adversities and as an outsider. A few months later they won bronze in Rio. The gold mission, it almost overtook itself on the way. But even in terms of success, Hanning insisted: “The big goal is still clearly Olympic gold 2020 in Tokyo and nothing else. That is absolutely realistic.” And they firmly believed in it. “A bright future”, said backcourt shooter Julius Kühn after the sovereign 31:25 (17:13) in the bronze match against Poland: “There are a lot of young players, we can all play together for a few more years . You can still expect a lot. ” The once courageous long-term goal of Olympic victory, which was briefly made clear in Rio, did not seem far away. Or as Hanning said: “The future is ours.” But after that it became difficult, the steps went back the way, away from the gold.
Instead of medals, there were low blows, instead of cheers, disappointments piled up. “We! Are! Back! In!”, Hanning had cheered after taking fourth place at the 2019 home World Cup. He meant the world class in handball and followed up with a nice monologue about it: “We were once really in there, then we were gone very quickly. Now it was our turn, as of today we’re back in.” But after that you were quickly outside again. After the fifth place at the EM 2020, the unfortunate national coach Christian Prokop had to go together after a public alliance that had been degraded to a farce because he was no longer trusted to lead the big association to precious metal again after five medalless tournaments.
With Alfred Gislason, one of the greatest of the world coaching guild took over the helm of the lurching national team. It remained: The big goal, the media-effective Trara, on which the non-specialist press can work off, where handball otherwise occurs at most marginally. Everything found its retarding moment, in the classic drama theory the phase before the dissolution, when the DHB team first had to qualify for the Olympics in April of this year. “Our goal is to get Olympic gold,” Hanning said in January during the World Cup, which the team finished twelfth. Gislason had had little effect in Egypt with a badly plucked team – and certainly not fueled any optimism in the direction of an Olympic medal.
“You’re not even qualified …”
“You’re not even qualified and you’re talking about Olympic gold again,” said 2007 world champion Christian Schwarzer afterwards at Sport1. “Why do those responsible always have to rush ahead and set goals?” With runner-up world champions Sweden, the traditionally unpleasant Slovenes and outsiders Algeria, qualifying for the games was not a sure-fire success. “You can talk about goals when you have qualified,” said Hendrik Pekeler, head of defense of the national team, the “Mannheimer Morgen”. What followed in the three days of Berlin was a small resurrection of German handball: Almost with the best line-up, after a strong performance and with a lot of morale, they defied the highly regarded vice-world champion in the last second with a 25:25, against Slovenia the troops delivered 36:27 one of the strongest internationals in a long time. In addition, a 34:26 mandatory win against Algeria, ticket booked, go for gold.
Now “Tokyo 2020” is finally here, one year late due to the pandemic. National coach Alfred Gislason traveled to Japan with 17 players, among them only two substitutes Silvio Heinevetter and Tobias Reichmann who were part of the national team at the start of the gold campaign in 2013. If everything goes smoothly and no player is injured during the tournament, you will only play supporting roles in the grand finale of Mission Tokyo-Gold. Director Juri Knorr was 13 at the time, backcourt shooter Sebastian Heymann was 15, while Johannes Golla was still 16. And all of them were still far from being a handball national player.
Now they shoulder their rucksacks together, the boys and the old hands, but “everyone can identify with the goal,” Hanning assured ntv.de. “The anticipation for the task is great.” And immediately before the first tournament game against Spain on Saturday, he confirmed to the sports information service: “The dream of Olympic gold is alive!” The messed-up World Cup shouldn’t be used as a yardstick. Those were completely different conditions, many players didn’t play, so we didn’t have the necessary stability. Now we’re almost with the best line-up, with the exception of Fabian Wiede and Patrick Wiencek. Hence I believe that we will see a strong German team at the Olympics for whom a medal is absolutely possible. ” Kreisläufer and defensive titan Wiencek and backcourt player Wiede had declared that they would not play the games.
Rock-hard draw as a shortcut?
The defensive bulwark, which is so eminently important for the German game, which lacks the offensive exceptional talent, will now be organized by Pekeler – either with Flensburg’s Johannes Golla or Melsungen’s Finn Lemke at his side. For Hanning, Pekeler is “the central player”, who embodies world-class defense and attack from Kiel. Lemke, who made it onto the world stage at the EM sensation 2016 with enormous reach, merciless presence and above all through the embodiment of unconditional invincibility, has yet to “grow back into emotional leadership”. No matter which combination the national coach opposes the opposing attacks: It has nothing more to do with the shaky World Cup defense than Golla and the inexperienced and ultimately overwhelmed Sebastian Firnhaber defended together.
Surprisingly, the rock-hard draw also provides Hanning with optimism: opponents in the group stage are European champions Spain, Argentina, record world champions France, Norway with superstar Sander Sagosen and Brazil. “Right in the competition” you are like that, “challenged right from the start,” said Hanning and above all: “You won’t meet all these opponents again in the quarter-finals.” The four best nations in each group qualify for the knockout round. In the supposedly easier group A, Sweden and Rio world champions Denmark are nominally only two of the big handball nations.
“I was hoping for such a strong group. Our path to a medal may be easier this way,” Hanning commented on the draw in May. But one is “first of all happy to be there,” he told ntv.de. And reaching the semi-finals is definitely a success. Regardless of the great goal, the dream of gold. “And honestly, whoever is in the semi-finals doesn’t want to finish fourth.” National coach Gislason gave the semifinals as the primary goal.
Olympia is easier than EM or World Cup
The preparation time was minimal: a week before departure they were united in the training camp in Herzogenaurach because the Bundesliga could only be finished so late. Other big nations, like group opponents France, have been preparing for the climax for weeks. “That’s not much,” said backcourt player Steffen Weinhold. But no matter: “If you mentally feel like it, you can cover up a lot with your head.” Because: “You can feel the same anticipation as five years ago. Everyone is hot,” said Paul Drux from Berlin, one of ten bronze medalists in the 2016 squad.
And Pekeler, who criticized the talk of an Olympic medal in March, knows the formula for success: “You only have to reach one of the top four places at the Olympics in the preliminary group. If you then win the quarter-finals, you play for immediately a medal “, said Hannings key player of the” Süddeutsche Zeitung “. “At a World Cup or European Championship it is much more difficult to get into the top three, we all have that in mind.” The sporting truth is: “For Olympic gold, other nations are more likely than we are,” said Pekeler to the “Mannheimer Morgen” in March. Teams like world champions Denmark, Spain, Norway or France are better staffed than Germany. “I see us behind this, which is not to say that we cannot win a medal too.
The sporting upswing in the German handball flagship has been visible and palpable since then: and can also be checked in the results. They managed the Olympic qualification convincingly, most recently in the last stress tests before the big tournament they won against World Cup quarter-finalists Egypt (29:27) and group opponents Brazil (36:27).
Christian Prokop, the national coach who was killed and who was no longer trusted to make it to Tokyo and through the tournament, is confident: “I see the German team on the right track,” he said. Many players are in “very good shape, the motivation couldn’t be higher. The boys have to show strong nerves under pressure. I wish them the luck they need so that they can fulfill their dream of a medal.”
Whatever the outcome: Team Germany’s longest gold mission comes to an end in Tokyo. After that you will have to look for a new goal. Bob Hanning will no longer formulate it: The functionary with the media charisma and the sense of mission is leaving the leadership of the German Handball Federation at the end of the year.