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  • Jacob Sweetman: The fantastic Mr. Füchse(s)


Jacob Sweetman: The fantastic Mr. Füchse(s)

The sports desk has spread its wings and flown from it‘s comfortably feathered football shaped nest to try out something new. Something new, huge and completely bewildering: handball.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: The fantastic Mr. Füchse(s)
Photo courtesy of fuechse-berlin.de

“Something is happening here, and you don‘t know what it is…. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

These words from a certain granite faced curmudgeon seem rather apt this week. Yep, the sports desk has spread its wings and flown from its comfortably feathered football-shaped nest to try out something new. Something new, huge and completely bewildering: handball. The Berlin Füchse average over 7,000 per game at home in the Max Schmeling Halle. That‘s more than all of Berlins football clubs (outside of Hertha and Union) practically put together, and on Sunday evening were playing newly promoted TSG Friesenheim.

And all these people form a supercharged cross between basketball and hockey that is as huge across Europe as it is unknown in England. I had only really even heard of handball because of Maros Kolpak, a player whose significance in the English sporting world has more to do with cricket than his own career.

Like a 15-year-old virgin in a brothel, I sat down nervously and then wondered how it had all happened so quickly. I mean, the crowd enjoyed it, but I just felt a bit empty and confused. Every time I tried to write something down, something else had happened in a flash. I don‘t know what, but something definitely happened and kept doing so.

Head down again, write it down, shit, what was that, a goal?

I tried to copy the notes from my broadsheet neighbour at the beautifully appointed press section on the halfway line, but German shorthand is hard at the best of times, let alone when transcribing a game so frenetic it would make gabber seem ponderous. That didn‘t stop the fans of the foxes though. They were vociferous and knowledgeable, and with the incessant banging together of their free cardboard clappers made a racket the whole game. 

The speed comes from the rules, three seconds to hold the ball, three steps to move it on before dribbling (like basketball) without being called for traveling. The ball is, mostly, moved by passing it and then, Boom, someone will launch himself at the goal, barging defenders out of the way, leaping and squirming before lozzing the thing towards the net.

I didn‘t know where to concentrate, it was end to end to end to end – almost as quick as ice hockey, but with three times the amount of goals. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Sebastian Vettel, announced as the new Formula One world champion, but this was ignored by the sports desk. We deal in sports, not in cars.

It‘s been a great year so far for the Füchse, sitting third in the German championship, and having already beaten THW Kiel, the 10 time champions since 1994 whose budget doubles that of Berlin‘s 4.5 million euros and regularly get over 10,000 spectators. Kiel is a big handball town apparently, but then it doesn‘t have much competition.

This pattern is repeated looking through the names of teams in the Handball Bundesliga. Only Hamburg can really claim to be a “football city”. Essen, Ahlen and Magdeburg have strong football traditions (as does, naturally, Berlin), but no recent success, so the space is there for the sport to flourish. The others are made up of towns like Ludwigshafen, Lemgo, Wetzlar and Dormagen – I don‘t know what goes on in Dormagen, but think one can safely presume that there‘s not much.

 I wanted to see German national goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter whose new contract (and famous older missus, naturally) confirm him as one of the Füchse‘s real stars. It‘s hard to say what I expected of him. The keeper`s art in handball is akin to that of King Knut. The shots keep coming – and because they are thrown from short distances with massive pace and much sleight of hand – they seem unstoppable. He got to a few, but not as many as his opposite number who gesticulated after every one wildly, waving his arms around at the small bunch of away supporters in the cheap seats. Heinevetter didn’t look so happy; he ranted and raged the first half away, screaming at his defenders for their mistakes.

He was sent to the bench in the second half (every team needs a scapegoat) because the Füchse were behind and struggling. He wouldn’t sit though, just prowled up and down, berating players and holding his greasy locks in his hands when the opposition scored, only to wave it around whilst having a go at someone else before he returned to play the final five minutes and celebrate the win. I missed most of the second half through following him as he continued the fine tradition of seemingly mental Germans between the sticks in any sport.

Get ready, because if the Füchse get in the top two then they will qualify for the European Cup and if they win it will be as the first Berlin side since 1956 – there’ll be a hell of a party, and none of us will know what is going on.