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16.11.2016, 17:20◄ last page     

BLOG: Tom O'Brannagain previews a true derby match between north German rivals Kiel and Flensburg, two sides far from at their best and in search of a spark in Match of the Week

Per ardua, ad astra

This week, MOTW goes to North Germany for the “Derby” between Kiel and Flensburg. It’s a strange word to use for such a huge occasion and yet it perfectly sums up exactly what we can expect. When we use the word “derby” we understand all too well the range of emotions that are prevalent for weeks leading up to the game, on the day and sometimes for a long time afterwards.

The word itself is from a town/city in England that is noticeable for its anonymity. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t really inspire. A better story is of a football/rugby game from a town in Derbyshire, which involved the peoples from two banks of the river in the town. Since the 12th century, they would gather to play a game in which the idea was to score a goal against your opponents. The goals were 3 miles apart and “by fair means or foul” you had to score a goal. Unnecessary violence was frowned upon, but the basic rule seemed to be that “there were no rules”.

Looking back at my own youth we had a kind of derby in our estate. I came from “The Park” and we would regularly play the boys from “The Lawn”. I mean we played football against other roads in the estate, but for some reason, this was the one that mattered most. Win and we were gods to all the little girls; lose and well, we would all slink home to nurse our wounded pride.

I guess in this media age, a lot of rivalries have been created to push attention, to get bums on seats, or to reach a new target audience, but there are some, that just stretch back into the mists of time. No-one can quite understand why they became so important, but they just did and the history and the legend have been passed on from father to son, or mother to daughter.

The difference between a “Derby” and most other games is that the winning or losing of a particular game can stretch on and on, not just lingering for a day or a week. In Irish Gaelic football, the rivalry between my county Dublin and the county of Kerry which is 300km away is legendary. I can still remember losing the 1975 all-Ireland final to them. It still rankles with me 41 years later. In soccer, I can still remember the Liverpool win against Everton that won them the first double in 1986.

Derbies are games that transcend normal sporting occasions. They are memories that last forever or scar you for life. I bet every Flensburg fan remembers in detail the loss to Kiel in 2007 and by contrast every Kiel fan remembers vividly their reversal to the same opponent in 2014.

I’m not as well versed in the lore of German handball as some of my esteemed colleagues, but I have been at enough of these games to know that there is a special atmosphere when they meet. I can imagine that the day is long laid out by the fans of their respective teams. From the first announcement of the date, it was marked in red on a calendar, each moment of the day accounted for as they prepare for a clash of monumental importance.

Ok, it’s not a final, it’s not even a match at the top of the Bundesliga (where both teams now have one loss each on their account), but it’s a derby. And like most strange things in this world, you wait all year for a derby and two come along one after another. Just last week these two teams met in the same hallowed venue, yet in the German league. Kiel took the victory by the narrowest of margins, 24:23.

Kiel are at home, again, and that gives them the slightest advantage, as 10,000 Kielers will want to send their neighbours northward one more time, with the thought that to bring us low you’re going to have to bring your A-game. That journey in the dead of night will be a lot more dismal than it already is if Flensburg lose.

And yet, neither team has really set the world alight in the CL this season. Kiel couldn’t do the business in Plock, albeit it came after the international break, and I am loath to judge a team after that kind of schedule. Add to that, their insipid performance at home to Schaffhausen and Kiel is not there just yet. On the flip side their performances in Barcelona and Veszprem should have yielded some points, but ultimately didn’t. In a tight group, winning matches against the “lesser” teams is vital and Kiel have messed up away to the Poles.

Flensburg themselves aren’t much better. A drubbing away to Paris, a home loss to Barcelona, almost throwing away a game at home to Plock (which prompted a heart-felt plea from Ljubo to get the fans back on side) and a draw with Veszprem means that their season is not going according to plan.

If I might be so bold as to suggest that both teams look “leggy”. Over-trained, over played, leg-weary. There is no spring in the step. They look tired already. It’s hardly surprising considering the past season with all the international matches.

Kiel’s performance in Plock looked like they played the game in second gear. When they went to look for third, it wasn’t there. Players are making uncharacteristic mistakes.

I once thought of Flensburg as “a murmuration of starlings”, in the way they moved, but this season that same spark is not there. Kiel, by contrast, have the excuse of trying to integrate so many new players.

But, for all my misgivings about this match-up and the teams involved it is still a derby. And in a derby anything can happen. It’s an “on-the-day” situation and that is what makes it so special. Form goes out the window. The players must reach down into reserves of strength they didn’t know were there. They must find another gear to take them past their opponent when the game is poised on a knife edge. Somehow, they managed this last week, but I guess a derby brings out those reserves of strength. Now they have to do it all over again.

Because on this day, more than any other day, they are playing for more than their pay cheque, or their teammates, they are playing for an entire community. They are playing for their fans. But if last week’s game is anything to go by, they already know that. A tremendous comeback by Kiel when they were down and out only brought victory, in the cruellest of ways for Flensburg, when one save/post at the bitter end denied Flensburg a draw.

The fans themselves know that either team can destroy the party for the other and will not be able to relax until the final whistle and maybe not even after that. Meeting the gloating winner in work the next day is not a happy thought. Flensburg fans have a week of “what-ifs” ahead of them, but the silver-lining is that they don’t have to wait too long for another bite at the cherry.

The CL has not been a happy hunting ground for either of these teams in the past few seasons. Each coach and a lot of players have experienced the winning of this prestigious trophy. They will not be over anxious about their current position in Group A, yet neither will they be overjoyed. A win here could spark both teams.

In the words of da Vinci:

“For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return”

It’s about time both these great teams return to the top of the European tree.

Per ardua, ad astra.

TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehfTV commentator

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