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Jacob Sweetman: The volleys of youth

The Sportsdesk tries gainfully to talk about Berlin recycling volleys' fifth Bundesliga title, secured on Monday in a dramatic playoff. As usual, however, the Sportsdesk mostly fails.

This may not come as a great surprise to many of you who regularly read my incoherent ramblings, so lazily shat out on these here pages, but often, I really don’t know what I am talking about. Hence the lazy analogies and awkwardly shoehorned, half-baked ideas that clog up the Sportsdesk’s contributions to the Berlin Blog, when you could be reading something, you know, factual. But I can always take solace in the words of Stephen Hawking, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Brilliant. Thank you Dr. Hawking. In other words, it is better not to know than to simply think you do (or give the illusion of doing so). So let’s just plough on, let’s grab the bull by the horns, as it were, with full honesty. I know nothing of volleyball. I have attended a single game here in Berlin and was so drunk by the end – being surprisingly and rarely flush with cash (this is absolutely necessary if one is to get truly, successfully, drunk at the Max-Schmeling-Halle) – that all its meaning was as lost on me as a crocodile trying to get to grips with the basic tenets of Pythagoras’ revolutionary idea that numbers hold the entire structure of nature together. By the end I just wanted to swallow a couple of rocks, drag some fresh new flesh into my muddy pool and have a little thrash around. The numbers were hurting my brain.

But about volleyball I must write. Not just any volleyball though, I must write about the triumph on Monday night of the side who have just defended the German championship in the play-off against the side who have won 12 of the last 15 Bundesliga trophies (VfB Friedrichshafen). I must write about the BR Volleys, or to give them their full name, one that isn’t exactly evocative enough to ring around the pantheon of great sporting champions, the Berlin Recycling Volleys.

They have joined Hertha BSC and the Berlin Eisbären as the third part of a remarkably successful triumvirate of sides from the Hauptstadt this year. They are champions, having won a final game that went down to the wire, having won the final set they were, at one point, trailing by four huge points. Those numbers that are embedded in nature to the minutest level are still fairly alien to me. I have written them here as if they mean something other than just being the Arabic symbols that we Europeans were so slow to catch onto using instead of the clumsy Roman numerals, but when I saw the Volleys play the sheer athleticism of these guys cut through the fug of the alcohol and the bewildering, ever ticking scoreboard. Their will to win was palpable. They may have been wearing the same coloured uniforms of their sponsors, but they didn’t look like bin men. They dominated.

In an interview after the dramatic win in that fourth match of the best of five series, coach Mark Lebedew was beaming from his balding pate, down to the unmarking soles of his trainers. “At that moment I thought it was unlikely, but I know these boys well enough to know that anything was possible. They have shown that in game after game, going back into last season.” He talked about going through the seven circles of hell “and a few steps more”, and it was genuinely touching, genuinely genuine. He was content to let his team take the glory and to let the city bask in the reflected warmth of their achievement.

My desperate attempts to sound knowledgeable about these matters usually end up with a panicked flick through Das große Lexikon der DDR-Sportler, the lazy sportswriter in Berlin’s bible. Somewhere, in amongst the thousand names of the former East’s great and good, in between the lists and lists of ice-skaters and rowers and hammer throwers and weight lifters, I found an allusion to Arnold Schulz, the best attacking player of the 1966 World Cup who also won the silver medal in the Munich Olympics in 1972. After retirement, he was working in 1979 as an international referee in the West, and used the opportunity to flee the socialist republic. It took him five long years to be reunited with his family because the regime wouldn’t give a travel pass to any family members of sportsmen who had escaped. All he would have had in those five long years was his sport and his memories.

This doesn’t mean very much, but I wonder what he thought of the volley’s win, I wonder what he made of their dramatic comeback against Germany’s most successful modern volleyball side. As Berlin’s many thousands of volleyball fans celebrated the city’s victory, maybe the Leipzig-born player didn’t care at all, but then that would leave me nowhere to end this somewhat disappointing story. Instead we’ll just leave the end to Lebedew. It seems appropriate enough. After the game he simply, breathlessly interred, “I am very, very happy.”