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19.10.2016, 13:20◄ last page     

BLOG: There are no meaningless games in the VELUX EHF Champions League, ehfTV commentator Tom O'Brannagain insists.

What is the meaning of meaningless

This season has given me much more pleasure than previous seasons I have to say. It has allowed me time to watch the games as a fan and an analyst without the weekly grind of travel and major research.

It has also given me time to read others views on handball, something I couldn’t always do. You know there is a certain “walking on eggshells” that surrounds handball. You’re not supposed to annoy anyone, say anything negative, and upset anyone, because it’s such a small sport.

In my opinion this only leads to bland articles, bland opinions and in the end a certain cloistered view of our sport. Football perhaps goes too far, but at least there is something in the writing than can be mulled over, something to get your teeth into, “water-cooler moments” you might say.

I was intrigued to read an opinion piece recently, which expounded on the possibility of a “Confederations Cup”. The premise of the article was sound, that another major international competition was needless for already overloaded players.

But three lines caught my eye:

“The Champions league includes too many meaningless games; it hardly makes a difference if you win your group or finish 6th.”

“Players and managers, especially those of top German teams, Kiel Flensburg and RNL, have openly criticised the current mode of CL.”

“As far as I understand, clubs like Veszprem, Kielce or Barcelona never or rarely complain about having too many games to compete in. They play their domestic matches “cruise-controlled” except for some games."

Let me begin by saying that this Ptolemaic view of European handball is really starting to grate with me. The idea that somehow the entire European handball firmament revolves around the “strongest league” in the world is disrespectful to the other European national leagues.

The inference from the above lines is that: “We, (The German teams) don’t need that many games, but the others do.”

Isn’t it strange that only the German teams have “openly” criticised” the CL, as if in some darkened alley-ways, the rest of Europe was similarly doing the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the strongest teams in Europe come from Germany, but in a league where Kiel has been the dominant team for the last twenty years, it is hardly appropriate to call it the strongest league in the world. The most competitive, perhaps, in terms of actual games, but in the end, apart from the odd year, Kiel come out on top.

The other obvious inference from the above is that the German teams will be there or there abouts at the end of the season, so why bother with all those games which are going to determine a kind of pre-ordained order. The fact is that Europe needs Germany.

The top teams need to pit themselves against the German superpowers, but the German teams also need Europe to try to prove year on year that they are the best. There is no doubt that everyone’s national league is their bread and butter and that to win the German league probably adds a little jam.

The article refers to major clubs around Europe being on cruise control to win their leagues. The obvious candidates are Veszprem, Zagreb, Kielce and Barcelona, but if we look at this season alone, Barcelona has struggled to win in Benidorm and La Rioja because they entered the games in “cruise-control” thinking they would automatically win.

Cruise control suggests that the other teams are not trying to win. This is itself is insulting to all professional teams.

Denmark’s league is incredibly competitive, but each team alone is not strong enough to win the CL. In France, PSG are the dominant force, but even they are not assured of a win in every game, much like the German league.

But it’s the “meaningless matches” part that really got to me. I was prepared to give this format at least a year to see how it might develop and I for one am amazed at what I have seen.

From my conversations with top German coaches, I know for a fact that that is not their feeling. In fact, don’t take it from me; look at their body language and strategies on TV.

When Flensburg was losing at home to Veszprem, Ljubo called a time-out and really thundered into his players. Is a match meaningless, if a coach cares that much? Look at the Kiel-Veszprem game last week. 21-19 and only 4 goals scored in the last 9 minutes.

That is two teams that care, two coaches who care. Watch Dahmke throw himself on a rebound to win the ball for his team. Watch Marguc steal between two players to score from a penalty save from Landin. This EHFCL is full of that kind of hearts on the sleeve moments. When a team realises that not only are they playing for themselves, but for glory, for their fans, for their team, then the match is no longer meaningless regardless of the opposition.

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s almost as if there is a pre-ordained 14 that will qualify, so why bother with the matches. The article is not suggesting that certain teams don’t deserve to be there, (in the groups) at least I hope not, but it’s akin to saying, well Veszprem only beat Kiel by two, so let’s just start the game in the 58th minute.

Is this format of the CL anymore meaningless when 4 out of 6 would qualify in the old group stages? The fact is that this version of the competition has given us high quality almost all the time. Look at Kristianstad and their heroics last year.

They are right in the mix again. And don’t tell me, when you see the relief on the faces of the RNL players after the game the other night, that the game was meaningless. Ask RNL after last season’s shock loss to Zagreb, whether they had wished they finished higher in the group. There is an obvious reward to finish in the top three and I would bet a few cents that most teams will fight to be there.

The new format of the CL has given us bigger crowds in otherwise empty arenas. It has left us looking forward to many top quality games each week.

It has given immeasurable chances of development to younger players. It has placed those young players in the shop window. The crowds, the excitement, the tension, the pace, the electricity and the fervour are all there for all to see. And with all of that, comes the knowledge that winning breeds winning.

I cannot speak for all coaches to say that they like or dislike the current format of the Champions league. My own personal opinion is that players have to play far too often. But now the big teams are focusing on building squads and not just teams to combat that. And there is a lot to say for the likes of Veszprem, Barcelona, Kielce, currently Vardar and possibly Zagreb that the CL format favours their development.

The premise of the statement from the article is that the result is meaningless, because the top 6 will qualify. If this were truly the case then we wouldn’t see the level of competitiveness we have seen thus far.

So I ask myself the question: “Does the plethora of group matches in the CL lead to meaningless games”?

No! Now it’s a real league.

TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehfTV commentator

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