by Alex Leopold of USA Team Handball
The Battle of Chicago proved that there is never such a thing as a “friendly” when it comes to Poland versus Germany; Pascal Hens and company withstood a late rally to hold off Poland 27-26 in front of a partisan Polish crowd at the UIC Pavilion that never stopped cheering, singing, and chanting for their beloved stars.
From the opening tip, chants of “Pol-ska” (“Pol-and”) rang threw out the audience as the majority of the crowd urged Poland on. The Polish team caroled the energy of the crowd into a bright start which saw Marcin Jurecki, brother of teammate B. Jurecki, open the scoring to set off a deafening roar of cheers from the red-and-white clad fans. Germany would respond immediately through the right arm of Sebastian Preiss which showed that the Germans relished playing in such a daunting environment. The teams would exchange goals before Germany’s Holger Glanddorf would score his second of his three games to give Germany a 3-2 lead that they would never quite let Poland wrestle away from them.
Germany went into halftime with a 15-11 lead thanks to a flurry of turnovers from the Polish team which displeased Poland Head Coach Bodgan Werta who often expressed his displeasure with his team’s sloppiness.
Michael Kraus was instrumental in securing the half-time lead as he took advantage of Polish penalties to score several free shots. Kraus led the German team with five goals in the match. Backed by a crowd that never gave up on them, Poland slowly mounted a comeback which saw them struggle to chip away at the German lead. Everytime it looked like Poland had all of the momentum, the German team would respond with a goal.
Poland finally managed to find a dent in the German armor with three minutes to go, Marcin Jurasik, who was the game’s high scorer with six goals, cut the lead to three at 23-25 with an acrobatic left-handed strike from the right wing. Mere seconds later, Holgar Lijewski would fire in a left-handed shot to put the Polish within two.
The last two minutes were chaotic with teams exchanging turnovers and missed shots. But with 35 seconds to play Daniel Zoltak would somehow toss a diving shot past German Goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter.
The Germans would not be denied victory in the Battle of Chicago, however, as they managed to run out the clock with Poland fans loudly jeering them for wasting time. As soon as the final whistle rang, fans from both countries quickly and eagerly crowded the courts edges to snare pictures and autographs from their respective country’s stars.
German captain Pascal Hens was named MVP of the game after scoring three goals.
“It was a very good game even though we only had one week to train,” said Hens. “It was good to win by just one goal in the end even though we let them back in it. I thought it was a good show for the people in the [United] States and hopefully more people will play handball.”
Both teams threw caution to the wind throughout the entire match despite the fact that the players’ club seasons start this Monday. Three yellow cards were shown within the game’s first 10 minutes and the opponents, who in some cases play with each other during the club season, showed no hesitation in going right at their counterparts.
It should be surprising to anyone that the contest featured a high degree of physicality. After all, with the two country’s respective histories with each other, Poland vs. Germany is a fixture that is always fiercely contested.
Polish fans targeted mohawked the German star Hens in particular after he was involved in a series of physical incidents. Every time the tall left back touched the ball, a chorus of jeers and whistles rained down on him from the Polish faithful.
The target held no animosity, as he said after the game, “It was a lot of fun with so many Polish people here.”
Poland’s Holgar Lijewski, who netted five goals, said, “We could all see that both teams wanted to win. We wanted to win especially because there were many Polish people here from the Chicago community here.”
However, Germany also wanted to win and put us in very tough situations in the second half but my team is very strong and was strong enough to come back. I am very happy to only by one goal. It easily could have been more.”
Prior to the Battle of Chicago, the United States Men’s National Team squared off again current national club champions Los Angeles Team Handball Club which features former national team players for countries around the world. The United States prevailed 23-19 but they were only able to pull away in the game’s dying minutes.
Adam El Zoghby led the United States with nine goals but it was the lefty goal-scorer’s willinghess to drop to the floor that characterized the team’s overall mentality and ability to preserve in a tightly contested matchup.
With 36 seconds left, it was El Zoghby’s steal and pass to Alex Mullin for a goal that made it 23-19 which essentially sealed a well-earned victory for the United States.
“I played in Germany with this team [the United States] last year but this team was much more together,” said back TJ Giordano. “Everybody was picking each other up and guys were willing to do whatever.”
Giordano highlighted El Zoghby’s hustle in particular. “You saw Adam [El Zoghby] play the entire game pretty much and he still laid out to get that ball.”
LA’s Michael Hinson, while disappointed with his team’s loss, paid tribute to the event’s doubleheader of team handball.
“It was a pretty successful event from my point of view. The crowd seemed very enthusiastic with everything [both games],” said Hinson. “It was a successful event from my point of view.”
More than 6,800 tickets were sold, alongside a live handball broadcast around the country for the first time outside of the Olympic Games, made the Battle of Chicago a triumph.
“This proves that the United States can create enthusiastic and European-style excitement for handball on American soil,” said Steve Pastorino, general manager of USA Team Handball.
Fans left the UIC Pavilion with beaming smiles across their faces as they had seen two hotly contested team handball matchups and were able to witness their German and Polish heroes up-close and in person. Germany may have won this year’s version of the Battle of Chicago but Poland can perhaps borrow a familiar saying from Chicago Cubs fans: “There is always next year.”