Andras Podpinka is getting a bit old. He won’t be angry when he reads this, his first participation in a table tennis world championship, then for his home country Hungary, was 35 years ago. After fleeing to the west, seven more World Cup appearances followed, all for Belgium, with whose team he won silver in 2001. The nephew of the Hungarian table tennis legend Tibor Klampar was once number 23 in the world rankings, today he has a small tummy and his white hair makes him look older than he actually is. On the other hand, what makes him look younger than the 51 years he has recently reached is his style of play: Always standing close to the table, he attacks almost every ball without compromise. This shortens his walking distances as well as the reaction times – his own, but also that The opponent.
For many, this is simply too quick. When Podpinka hits, there is little to do. That may not only explain his impressive individual record of 22: 4 victories, which he brought for TuS Fürstenfeldbruck in the Regionalliga Süd, but also a bit what he managed to do against TSV Windsbach a few weeks ago. Then he defeated a certain Gaston Alto, not even close, 11: 7, 11: 9, 10:12, 11: 4. Even more astonishing than the result is that he met such an opponent in the fourth division. Because Alto, the Argentinian, was not bad in the world rankings, he was in position 95. And, wait, check it out … in February 2020.
Patron Staudacher often plays as a substitute himself, even if he rarely wins the individual
Alto is not really getting old at 34, he has thick black instead of light white hair, and no tummy either – although he looks a little bit stocky, a hint of Ailton. In any case, he was never as high in the world elite as he was a few weeks ago when he met Podpinka, somewhere between high amateur and semi-professional competitive sports. What did a man like Alto do in the regional league?
Podpinka’s club career is easier to outline. After all sorts of European first division stations, he played shorter, played in the second division for Hilpoltstein, then for Fürstenfeldbruck, where he eventually joined the second team as a youth and player coach. When the club retired from professional sports, he helped him to rise again as a leader: from Bayern to Ober to the Regionalliga. Now his club has decided to withdraw again, down into the national league, which Podpinka no longer wants to go with as a player. He should stay as a trainer.
However, only one can answer the question of Gaston Alto. His name is Andreas Staudacher, he is the team leader at TSV Windsbach in Central Franconia and is responsible for financing the squad. “He has a certain ambition to move the team forward,” says department head Karl-Heinz Mertel. “If you want to play in a higher class, you need capital, and our division would have only limited possibilities.” But Staudacher takes care of everything, he takes care of the players, so the first team is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the club, “a satellite”. Staudacher often plays as a substitute himself, even if he has only won one of his 14 singles this season. “I don’t mind,” he says, “I mainly take care of management and that the mood is good.”
The Alto thing was a happy coincidence. Two years ago they got in touch with a friend, actually looking for someone who could help them get out of the league. It then took care of itself because the TSV was surprisingly fourth up. Alto was spared the fifth division. At the beginning you didn’t know how good the new one was, Staudacher says, “he wasn’t a top 100 player at the time”. The world ranking should not be taken too seriously anyway. Abdel-Kader Salifou, for example, regulars in the first division of the TTC Neu-Ulm, can only be found at position 195, Kilian Ort from TSV Bad Koenigshofen at 188. “Kilian Ort is much stronger than Gaston”, Staudacher assures. Nevertheless, the Argentine is of course far too good for the fourth division, of course he could play higher, he would have more lucrative offers. His first season for the Middle Franconia ended with a 20-0 record. The Argentine also conquered Podpinka, whom Alto knows well from training together in Bad Aibling. In the second year he is currently at 20: 2 wins.
The team should move up next season – an exceptional player alone is not enough
Staudacher explains that Alto is a very familiar person who feels comfortable in Windsbach; who would appreciate earning some money there without much pressure; who is no longer one of those twenty-year-olds “who train daily from morning to night”. If his association agrees, he receives a three-month visa for each round of the second half of the season, which is the number two Argentina spends in Bavaria. For the coming season, too, it is scheduled again from September.
The German table tennis association and most of the state associations have so far only interrupted the season because of the pandemic; the Bavarian Table Tennis Association has declared its ended. What that means for promotions and relegations, whether the first round table is scored, the last current status or whether the entire season is canceled is open. For the first team of the TSV Windsbach this is irrelevant. After sixth place in the first year of Alto, she was last in third place with no chance of advancement. The situation for the second team, which was on the way up to the top league, is tricky. Some of the talents that the club created a few years ago play in it. “It was a year in which everything worked out,” said division head Mertel, and Staudacher says: “That would be a bitter setback if it didn’t work out, that was our goal. But we still hope.”
The first team will then be promoted next season. Staudacher believes that it has to be attractive. There will also be another new one, of a similar level to Alto. “A young player from other European countries”, he could not reveal more. One thing is clear: An exceptional player alone is not enough in a team of six. From the third league on there are four players, so it is easier. “We don’t want to buy success together,” asserts Staudacher, who calls himself an “original Windsbacher”; it is important to him that everything fits humanly. He would like to get more German players from the area, such as Tobias Ehret and Denis Emter, who are part of the regular sextet, just behind the Czechs Jan Urbanek and Petr Husnik. But the offer is limited in francs. That goes for everyone. For example, Jorge Campos, 28, plays at the TTC Kist. The Cuban took part in the Olympic Games in 2016, even ahead of Podpinka and Alto. Kist is a solid fifth division.