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15.02.2017, 09:57◄ last page     

BLOG: Tom Ó Brannagáin ehfTV commentator is back and makes his first trip to the Swedish town of Kristianstad for their ehfTV Match of the Week against Rhein-Neckar Löwen with Einstein's relativity coming into play

"It's all relative"

It seems such a long time since I sat down to write about the EHFCL. In that time we have had the World Championships in France, the New England Patriots recorded the most improbable win in the Super Bowl and Donald Trump became POTUS, another something I thought improbable. And in all that time the idea of nationhood and who belongs where started to rear its ugly head. And while all of that was going on I was reminded of New England’s coach Bill Belichick when he said: “Race has nothing to do with sport”.

How right he was. Where else other than sport would you find an Irish guy, travelling through Denmark to Sweden, to the “Orange City” to watch a motley crew of unknowns from different nations play in the Champions League against the power house of Rhein-Neckar Löwen. And yet that is where we find ourselves. A few seasons ago, only a few diehard experts would have even known that IFK Kristianstad existed and don’t get me started on trying to find this place on a map of the world. It is to all intents and purposes just another town in the firmament of handball, a place with almost no Champions League history and up until a few seasons ago, a pretty miserable history in the Swedish league. The team is mostly young Swedes with a smattering of Nordic players and a Montenegrin goalkeeper.

Enter Ola Lindgren and suddenly the landscape brightens up. A first league title in over 60 years was brought to the club and suddenly they were among the elite. The wise old head that had been part of that golden generation of Swedish handball was bringing about a miracle at a club that had been in the doldrums since 1953. Just imagine how long ago that was. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in England. That is a long wait for a league title and Lindgren did it. And he did it with young talent and journey men. This wasn’t a “buy the best to fix it”; it was hard work and an eye for talent and hunger.

When the group phase for last season was announced and I saw Kristianstad in the mix in Group B, I doubt that I was the only one who raised an eyebrow. Surely this was a joke. I’m a fan of merit and there had to be at least four other clubs that deserved that place ahead of Kristianstad. But Lindgren and his handball “refugees” won me over. Jamali, a cast off from Veszprem was superb, O’Sullivan was outstanding. Bjornsen, Cederhom etc, the list was endless. Suddenly, I was a believer and a fervent follower of the “Orange Horde”. It wasn’t the underdog tag that caused me to check their result week on week, it was the fact that they competed. And regardless of where you come from in the world, a fan only wants one thing; when you pull on that jersey give it everything you have.

And so like Dorothy in Oz following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, I get to meet the wizard in the Orange City. In a way this is a return to what MOTW stood for at the start. When we came up with the concept all those years ago, the idea was to educate the fans on all aspects of the CL. That meant travelling to the big, big games and the small outposts of handball that no-one had ever heard of. And so another great “refugee” of his time, Albert Einstein, came to mind: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious”

This is a new experience for me. An arena I have never visited and an atmosphere I have only admired from afar. There will be bigger names competing this weekend, but Kristianstad have proven that they are worth a visit. In fact, it is our duty to bring their raw emotion and power to you. RNL are firm favourites for this game with all their big names regardless of what happened here last year. They have a Bundesliga in their pocket and have that monkey off their back. And in Andy Schmid they have a playmaker at the peak of his talents. Look around that team and they don’t have a weakness. The surprise element that would have faced them last year is gone. The travel plans have been experienced before, they know the arena, and they have faced the fans, so to all intents and purposes this should be a walk in the park for them. It doesn't hurt that they have some Swedish heroes in their ranks.

But suddenly they are facing a team with qualification in their own hands. Kristianstad’s unlikely victory away to Celje last week has given them renewed hope. For all the changes from last year’s roster, the team ethic is still there. And if I might quote Einstein again: “When you are courting a nice girl an hour might seem like a minute. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. This is relativity.

That arena is going to make the hour seem very long to RNL. Just look back to their meeting in Germany earlier in the group, what looked like being an easy victory led to a nervous last minute for RNL where they just about held onto a goal victory. In fact, IFK will still feel aggrieved for the overly long last attack that seemed to stretch out forever. Now imagine that same game with thousands of handball crazy Swedes urging you on. And just to add a little spice to the pot, Ola was once the head coach of the visiting team.

The names on the roster up there in Sweden won’t resonate with you the way the RNL names will.  A few will recognise Tollbring and Lagergren after Sweden's run at the WCh, but to all intents and purposes they are a team of realtive unknowns. They are good professionals that add up to much more of the sum of their parts. It’s a clever mix of youth and experience that somehow, amidst the moving on of names in the shop window, has managed to stay in the group, when once again no one gave them a chance.

Lindgren reminds me a bit of Belichick (HC of NE Patriots). The latter seems to find a home for those that have been considered surplus to requirements elsewhere. Lindgren finds the right player, with the right temperament to fit his style too. They have something unquantifiable that doesn’t add up to the names on the team sheet.

Will they win the CL? No. Will they qualify for the knockout stages? Maybe. Can they beat RNL? Difficult.

Is it MOTW? For me it is. They are, like so many of the smaller, less financially strong clubs, the cornerstone of the competition. Without them we don’t have the fairy story, we don’t have the David versus Goliath. Without them where is the breeding ground for all the young talented players. And they are never out of the game particularly in Kristianstad Arena. And for me, this is success. And as Albert says, it’s all relative.

TEXT: Tom Ó Brannagáin / bc

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