Friday, October 7, 2022

Wisla Plock 27 at SC Magdeburg 33 (EHF Champions League) - October 6, 2022

Back in July, two news items came out around the same time that got me to thinking about a trip to Germany. The first was that my cousin's kid, Brendan Guhle, had signed with a hockey team in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) after a few seasons in the Sabres and Ducks organizations. The second was that Norse Atlantic Airways, a new low-cost carrier, would be flying directly to Berlin for less than $400 round trip. So I had a quick look at schedules and saw that the NHL would be holding their season-opening series between Nashville and San Jose in nearby Prague, while Hertha Berlin would be home that weekend too. So I booked the flight and then went about my August, which was rather busy. When things settled down in September, I started to look into the details for this trip and found that the NHL game was severely overpriced ($240 to get in), while Hertha was moved to the Sunday evening, the same time I would be flying home. Fortunately, Germany has plenty of other sports and so I set about scouring the internet to see what I could find.

I would arrive on in Berlin on Thursday around 2 p.m. and had initially hoped that Union Berlin would have their Europa League match at home that night, but the draw was unkind and they were away to Malmo. So I spent hours online looking at various sports sites until I came across one that included handball and found that SC Magdeburg had a Champions League match at 6:45. A quick search revealed that Magdeburg is about 2 hours away from Berlin, so I booked a hotel there and hoped that everything would work out. The flight arrived quite early, but we had to be bussed to the terminal, and then immigration was rather slow. I had downloaded the Deutsche Bahn app, which made it easy to book a train to Magdeburg, but there were two changes, so I didn't get to my hotel until 6, just 45 minutes before the game was scheduled to start. I dropped my bag off and then decided to walk the 30 minutes to GETEC Arena, home of SC Magdeburg. 

Of course, the route that Google suggested was under massive construction and required a rather lengthy detour, but by following the cars making the same detour, I was soon back on the right path, though delayed slightly. I arrived at the stadium right at 6:45, noticing that the two pop-up bars were devoid of customers, suggesting that there would be no pregame ceremonies here.

I encountered one final problem at the box office when they said it was cash only as I presented my card. Thankfully, I had brought some leftover euros from a previous trip and bought a ticket, entering the venue (no security check of course) just as proceedings were getting underway.

This was my first handball game and I really didn't know what to expect. For those who have not seen the sport, it combines the back-and-forth possessions of basketball on a rectangular playing surface, with goalies guarding nets that are larger than those in hockey. There are two halves of 30 minutes each and few stoppages. Six attacking players pass the ball up to six times, after which they must take a shot, most of which end up in the net. Goalies are at a distinct disadvantage, saving well under 50% of the shots they face. As you can see above, it was 1-1 after just a minute and this pace continued well into the first half.

The stadium seemed quite full, though seats could be found in the corners and behind the net. Concessions were in each corner, allowing for fans to line up without impeding those wandering about. Prices were very cheap when compared to the gouging that goes on at stadiums here in the States: beer was $5 for a pint and brats and other food was around $3. By the way, the Euro is just about equivalent to a buck at this time, which made converting prices pretty easy.

I stood behind one of the nets for a while, waiting in vain for a stoppage. But this game stops rarely, and when it does, it is only for a brief moment. There are no TV timeouts, and each team gets three timeouts over the course of the match. When one of these was called, I made my way down to my seat, facing the goal that the home team was attacking for the first half (view below).

These were benches, but the seats above are unlike anything I had seen before. Blue metal with a space between the back and what seemed to be a headrest. Not sure how comfortable these would be, but with games so quick, it probably doesn't matter.

After the match, I waited around for fans to clear and then took a picture of the empty arena. GETEC Arena holds 7,800 for handball and attendance was just over half that at 3,935. A small, intimate venue that I was happy to visit.

In the end, this was an exhilarating if somewhat stressful experience. It took 15 hours to get from my apartment in NYC to the arena and although I had a few hiccups along the way, I got there on time and was overjoyed to witness this match. I hope that I have more opportunities to get overseas for sports trips; this was my first such journey since 2015.

The Game

Wisla Plock from Poland were the visitors in this Group Stage matchup, and from what I could tell, they were underdogs. The two teams had met in the semifinals of the 2020-21 EHF European League (one tier below the Champions League), with Magdeburg prevailing 30-29 on their way to the title. The first few minutes saw goal after goal, and just 12 minutes in it was 8-8. Then Magdeburg pulled their keeper, who had yet to make a save, and brought in Mike Jensen, a 6'9 Dane who is the club's #1 goalie (below). This didn't change things much, as the goals continued to be poured in at a rapid rate, with the home team leading 17-16 at the half.

Early in the second half, however, Jensen showed his worth, making about six spectacular stops (most stops in handball are of the spectacular variety) in the first ten minutes. His counterpart was unable to match his goal prevention prowess and Magdeburg took a 27-19 lead, which was unassailable, given the difference in quality guarding the nets.

The last 20 minutes were academic as Magdeburg held on for a 33-27 win. They scored on three of four penalty shots, while the visitors managed to pot their only attempt. The 60 total goals were scored on just 87 shots, so Jensen's 11 total saves on just 29 shots is all the more remarkable. The entire match took just 90 minutes, including the 15-minute halftime. So 60 minutes of action took just 75 minutes. What a refreshing change from American sports, where so much time is wasted for television.

At the time, I thought that this would be the only handball game that I would ever attend, but a few days later, I happened upon another. More on that in a later post.

Notes

If you want to follow the Champions League, Wikipedia has you covered.

Best,

Sean


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