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Handball European Championship 2024: From now on only finals for German handball players

Backcourt player Sebastian Heymann (r.) hardly had a chance against the experienced French defense around Karl Konan.

Photo: imago/Eibner/Marcel von Fehrn

The German handball players suffered a serious setback. But Andreas Wolff refused to lose his temper after the 30:33 defeat against Olympic champions France. Basically not much had happened, the goalkeeper suggested after the conclusion of the preliminary round of this 16th European Championship. “France has a world selection,” Wolff said casually about the Berlin evening. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Wolff himself had met the highest standards. The 32-year-old, who otherwise earns his salary with the top Polish club from Kielce, had a strong catch rate (36 percent), parrying many free throws from the French and repeatedly bringing the arena at the Ostbahnhof to a boil. But the other parts of the team were not good enough to create a better starting position for the main round that begins this Thursday. “We still have every chance,” said middle blocker Julian Köster, encouraging himself for the rest of the tournament.

The selection of the German Handball Federation (DHB) is now starting the main round with a mortgage of zero points and is therefore under heavy pressure. “Our goal is to get to the semi-finals,” reiterated national coach Alfred Gislason. “And that’s why we can’t lose any more games.” In this respect, his team faces four finals against Iceland (Thursday), Austria, Hungary and Croatia. These are all “opponents on equal terms,” says left winger Lukas Mertens.

In fact, the defeat against France had been taken into account before the tournament. For many experts, it came as no surprise that the enormous quality in the French backcourt ultimately made the difference. Stars like Dika Mem (FC Barcelona), Nedim Remili, Kentin Mahé (both Veszprém) and Nikola Karabatic (Paris St. Germain) have been steeling themselves at the highest level in the Champions League for years and used this experience in the decisive final phase of the game.

The first row in the German backcourt – the half-left Julian Köster, director Juri Knorr and the half-right Kai Häfner – has not yet made a single appearance in the premier class. This also applies to the Göppingen half-left Sebastian Heymann, whom Gislason trusted in the end because Köster needed a break. In this respect, Heymann’s three missed throws when the score was 27:27 were understandable, as were the many German bad passes to the circle. Given the lack of power in the German backcourt, the tough French defense was able to concentrate on restricting the space for pivot Johannes Golla.

The man whom the French sports newspaper “L’Equipe” celebrated as a “child prodigy” before the tournament, the German playmaker Knorr, also reached his limits against the defensive strategists. The 23-year-old scored eight goals and is now at the top of the top scorers list. But he only converted a modest five of his twelve throws from the field. But Knorr has not lost confidence either. “We will keep pushing and believe in ourselves until it’s over,” assured the builder.

On the one hand, the German handball players are drawing optimism from the move to Cologne. The atmosphere in Düsseldorf and Berlin was fantastic, said Knorr. »But Cologne is the mecca of handball. It will be even more gigantic.« Since the sensational World Cup victory in 2007, a myth has surrounded the arena in the cathedral city. At the 2019 home World Cup, the DHB selection also benefited greatly from the force in the stands.

In fact, the chances have increased due to the elimination of Spain, which was classified as the second top favorite for Cologne; as is well known, the Iberians are not the German handball players. The squad depth of Austria – the big surprise team of the tournament thanks to two draws against Croatia and Spain – is less impressive. As things stand, Hungary, which starts the main round with two points, and Croatia (1) are likely to be the biggest competitors in the fight for the semi-finals.

However, in order to have a chance of making it to the knockout round, a win at the start of the main round against Iceland is absolutely necessary. For the national coach, the duel with his home country is “of course a special game,” as he admitted. Not just because of his origins. Gislason has already trained Icelandic stars such as the middle man Gisli Thorgeir Kristjansson (SC Magdeburg). The 64-year-old announced before the trip to Cologne that he would sing both national anthems – but then devote himself fully to his job as national coach. »I will do everything to win this game. I can guarantee that.”

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