Practice with VfL LichtenradeOne of the “hardships” of my NATO assignment here in Paris is semi-frequent travel for meetings and conferences in Europe. Last week I travelled to Berlin and while there I took the opportunity to practice one night with Bjoern Brembs club, VfL Lichtenrade. VfL Lichenrade is a member of the German Berlin-Brandenburg Oberliga (4th Division) and is located Southwest of Berlin. Currently, they are 10th out of 13 teams and are in a battle to avoid being relegated to the 5th Division.
Now that I’m 40 years old and haven’t touched a handball since the 2004 US Championships, I knew that it might be interesting to see how well I could keep up. Fortunately, I’m in fairly decent shape due to frequent basketball play, but it was still a challenge to catch my breath at times and my throwing arm (never very strong in the first place) was definitely rusty.
Practice was very similar to National Team practices and club practices that the Condors used to have in California many years ago. The practice lasted about an hour and a half and the sequence was warm up Basketball/with a Handball, a little running, playing catch, goalie warmup, fastbreak drills, and 3 on 3 full court. As the team is nursing several injuries, a full court scrimmage was not very practical. The coach then briefed the team on their upcoming opponent and then brought out a crate of 20 half-liter bottles of beer. A very nice touch, I must say.
Riding back to Berlin, Bjoern filled me in on some more of the organization and structure of German Handball at this level. VfL Lichenrade practices 3 times a week and typically plays a match every Saturday. For their home matches they charge 5 Euros for admission and they average about 200 fans a match. The players receive only marginal compensation to include occasional beers and meals. They have 3 coaches, but only one is paid a small stipend. Some of the teams at the 4th Division level have larger budgets and do pay their players small fees and this partly shows up in the standings. Western Germany is also stronger economically than the East, so the 4th Division there is probably a little stronger.
Of course, as I practiced with the team, I performed my own internal assessment of just how this 4th Division team would match up with current and former clubs that I have played with in the US. I think it’s safe to say that they would have probably won the last US Nationals I attended in 2004. While not quite as athletically gifted as the Condors, they would have been more cohesive as a unit, due to the greater number of games and practice they have. Additionally, their roster is a lot younger and they are probably in better physical condition. The US National Team I played on back in 1993 (by no means an awesome National Team) would have had no problem beating them, but I’m not so sure how are current team would do. And I must agree with Bjoern that this comparative assessment says more about the weak state of US handball, then it does about the strength of German Handball.
Probably, the most interesting reflective point I have to make is simply the strikingly different organizational structures of US and European sports. In the US, most of are sports follow a natural progression from High School to College to Pro. This tiered structure means that the lower level sports are strongly tied to the age of the student athlete. If you are not good enough to play in College or Pro leagues you are essentially finished playing organized sports. Yes, there are city leagues and semi-professional leagues in the US, but they don’t even begin to compare to the European equivalent. In Europe there is a healthy middle ground, where the matches are more important and the players receive compensation. A 23-30 year old athlete who can’t play at the highest level still has an outlet. Whereas in the US, the difference between the NBA and the CBA or the NFL and semipro football is like jumping off a cliff. Hence the large number of middling US hoops stars continuing their career in Europe. Having observed both models, I would like to see the US further develop that middle ground. The reality, however, is that I don’t see this happening anytime soon as our current structure is too engrained in our culture.
Here’s the link to VfL Lichtenrade