A game of chess with his old Czech mateArticle
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BLOG: Tom O'Brannagain highlights the endless similarities between two titans of European handball ahead of their quarter-final meeting in the ehfTV Match of the Week

A game of chess with his old Czech mate

A trip to Kiel is always special, ask any fan or visiting player and they will tell you the same thing. It is doubly so for me, as it was the scene of my baptism of fire as a commentator for handball. The match was against Ciudad Real of Spain and my love of handball was reinforced.

The visitors are again a Spanish team, this time in the shape of Barcelona, and it is incredible the similarities that exist between these two great clubs. Both have won two titles at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 since its inception. Both have been at every edition, bar one, and both are clubs that players see as the pinnacle of a career. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard a player say: “When Kiel or Barcelona come calling, you don’t say No”. Unfortunately for one of these teams the road to Cologne will be over after the next two matches.

But beyond that surface stuff there is another layer of similarity that perhaps isn’t seen by the everyday fan. I am lucky to have witnessed it first hand and it is incredible to see. Because just being a top player is not enough at these two clubs, you must be the right kind of person. There is an unwritten law that exists in these two clubs that you are always representing your team, regardless of what you are doing, and that any behaviour reflects well or otherwise on your club. There is a professionalism about them that raises the standard for all involved with them. They are the ultimate standard bearers of where you need to be to be a successful club over a long period.

A different system, a strange season, has thrown these two giants together far earlier than either might have wanted, but for the fans, it is a chance to enjoy another of the great similarities between them. Their arenas are steeped in history and although each team has been beaten on home ground this season, when the chips are down, each home arena has the capability of carrying their team over the line.

It is no surprise that either team has reached this part of the season, (although in the case of Kiel it is pretty miraculous given their injury plight), however I am at odds with myself as to which team could come out on top. Neither, in my opinion has reached the level of previous seasons, and neither is playing the best handball of the season, albeit Barca topped their group.

But one thing is for sure, that their handball is overall the most beautiful to watch. (At least over the period of my involvement) In so many ways they are a match for each other and in this element even more so.

The best way for me to describe how they play is that their handball is crafted.

Although the element of individuality is allowed, there is a team ethic in the defence and attack that is an extension of the club ethic. Craft, guile, flowing are just some of the adjectives that can be attributed to their style of play.

And in the men that lead them you have two grandmasters. Gislason and Pascual are thinkers on the game. They will play this game through to the end in their heads long before a ball is thrown. It is reminiscent of a chess match as each will figure out which piece will best fit and which move will bring about the collapse of his opponent’s king.

It is a chess match that is on a par with the “Fischer-Spassky” Icelandic encounter.

Kiel is slowly coming to the boil with Duvnjak, Landin and Vujin starting to show. Barcelona themselves have their own castles in defence in the shape of Viran and Sorhaindo and each team has a plethora of stars that alone can turn a game.

Gislason having lost so many players (to injury and departures) may be forgiven for thinking he has reached Zugzwang. Zugzwang is a point in a chess match when a player realises he’ll inevitably lose and he has to decide whether to resign or play through to the bitter end. He is placed in a position where any move places him at a disadvantage.

But he needn’t worry just yet, because the endgame will not be decided in the first leg.

It’s 16 vs 16 just like in chess. The opening gambits will already be figured out.

In the end, one “King of Handball” will topple.

But first we’re in line for a great “first knight” at the Sparkassen.

And their old Czech mate is back in town.

TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehfTV commentator