Anything Angelique Kerber can do, Germany’s men’s handball team can do too, it seems.
Following the tennis player’s victory over Serena Williams at the Australian Open on Saturday, the country’s national handball side on Sunday beat Spain to clinch a surprise European Championships title.
Germany, the youngest side in the 16-country tournament in Poland, dominated the favorites for the entire match in Krakow. Despite having lost several key players to injury, they eased to an impressive 24-17 victory in front of a sell-out crowd of 15,000.
Goalkeeper Andreas Wolff was on superb form, stopping several Spanish shots in what is a notoriously difficult position in handball, a game that resembles a cross between basketball and indoor soccer and is popular throughout continental Europe.
“This team has the potential to play right at the top over the next six to eight years.”
But it was right back Kai Häfner who took the plaudits, scoring seven goals to help Germany win their second European title. The result also secures automatic qualification for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
“Our performance today was excellent, sensational – you don’t have to be the national coach to see that,” said coach Dagur Sigurdsson, who hails from Iceland.
“I am so proud it’s almost unbelievable.”
Handball is one of continental Europe’s most popular sports, with several countries, including Germany, Spain and France, running professional leagues. More than 400,000 spectators attended the championships in Poland.
While the sport takes a back seat to soccer in Germany, major tournaments attract a lot of interest. An estimated 5.6 million viewers watched Germany beat Denmark in their televised quarter final last week, for example.
Few of them had placed much hope in the side when the tournament began on January 15. The country’s sole European championship win was back in 2004 and the team failed to qualify for last year’s world championships in Qatar, although it was later given a wildcard place.
“The way the German team has played during this championship, the quality of their game and their speed, you really couldn’t have foreseen that two years ago,” Francois-Xavier Houlet, a former French national handball player turned handball expert, told Handelsblatt.
The side’s group-stage games – including, ironically, a loss to Spain – showed little to get excited about. But that changed suddenly during the quarter final against Denmark.
Despite six key players being sidelined, and tied at 23-23 with just a few seconds to go, right back Fabian Wiede managed to score twice in quick succession while goalie Andreas Wolff pulled off two vital saves to secure victory.
The semi-final was even closer, with Germany winning out 34-33 against Norway. But the game ended in controversy when, with just five seconds left, Germany appeared to field more than the regulation seven players. Norway later made and then withdrew a formal complaint.
But there were no complaints about the team’s performance in the final and Germany now joins host country Brazil, as well as other qualifiers France, Argentina, Qatar and Egypt at the Olympic Games. A qualifying tournament to fill the other Olympic berths will take place in April.
“This team has the potential to play right at the top over the next six to eight years,” said Mr. Houlet.
David Reay covers handball for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Erik Eggers, a freelance sports journalist, contributed to this story. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org