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29.03.2016, 09:30
Luxembourg are as motivated as never before
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FEATURE: Backed by government funding and the success of clubs like Handball Esch, handball has been on the rise in Luxembourg. And now the national team faces the chance to make it to the EHF EURO 2018 Qualification
 

Luxembourg are as motivated as never before

It is nine years that the Romanian-born Adrian Stot became the coach of Luxembourg men’s national team.

And for nine years he has been fighting the fight that almost every head coach fights in the country that has just about half a million citizens.

The majority of the sports are played on an amateur level only, handball, and only at the very top, is semi-professional at best.

“All talented players have to take care of the job that pays them, so quite often it is not possible for them to join the training camps as they cannot take their entire annual leave only for handball,” says Stot.

But he is nevertheless confident that the one major success is just ahead of the team. On 7 and 9 April, first at home, then away, Luxembourg face Finland in the play-offs for a spot in the EHF EURO 2018 Qualification.

The head-to-head statistics between the two teams are equal to date. Luxembourg and Finland won one game each and they drew once as well.

Beating the role models

And Finland are like a role model for Luxembourg top star Erik Schroeder and his teammates.

Two years ago, in the intermediate play-offs en route to the EHF EURO 2016 Qualification, Finland were the only team that had come through the first qualification phase to beat Romania who had been relegated after finishing among the three lowest ranked teams in the EHF EURO 2014 Qualification.

The reward for Finland were qualification top clashes against eventual EHF EURO 2016 finalists Germany and Spain – big moments in the players’ careers.

“I guess Finland have rejuvenated their team and this might be our chance to proceed to the EURO 2018 Qualification, as we are supposed to be more experienced,” says Stot who played 50 internationals for Romania.

Stot still remembers the day that brought his team to where it is now. Luxembourg had two points on their account in the first qualification phase and needed to win against the much more experienced Estonians by at least three goals. And they eventually won 29:26.

“This was one of the most magnificent days of Luxembourgish handball and the highlight since I coach this team”, says Stot.

Now Luxemburg have the chance to make to the final qualification stage for the second time, with their first participation dating back to the qualification for the EHF EURO 2010.

The first qualification match they played back then is still the best-attended in Luxembourg’s handball history.

On 30 October 2008 they faced France who had just won the Beijing Olympic Games and 5,000 fans flocked to the Coque Arena to watch the champions play. It became a mere side note that Luxembourg lost 21:30.

Handball on the rise

It is in the Coque Arena again where Adrian Stot’s team face Finland on 7 April for the first leg of the play-offs.

Since they topped Group B in the first qualification phase, they have not won a game, losing to Netherlands as well as to Switzerland in the qualification to the World Championship 2017, but in general, Adrian Stot is satisfied with the development of handball in Luxembourg.

“The government and the sport governing bodies have made some major efforts to bring sport in general and handball in particular ahead. And ever since the performance level has risen.”

The competition level in the Luxembourgish league increased when the BeNeLux League was founded, featuring the best teams from Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

“When the clubs improved, the national team improved”, says Stot. One remarkable result was achieved during the qualification for the World Championship 2013, when Luxemburg was close to beat Belarus but eventually lost 32:33.

The improvement on club level reached its climax in the 2012/13 season, when Handball Esch were the first team from Luxembourg to make it to a quarter-final in a European Cup competition.

They even made it all the way to the Challenge Cup Final, and 3,250 fans attended Esch’s home match in the Coque against SKA Minsk, not minding that Esch lost 24:32 and 26:3.

“The people in Luxembourg somehow became aware of handball following the hype surrounding Esch,” says Stot who regrets that Luxembourg clubs are no longer part of the now called BeNe League.

Dreaming of the surprise

Adding to Stot’s worries is the fact that he cannot count on his full squad against Finland.

His backcourt players Christian Bock and Tom Mais, two of the team’s best scorers, are injured.

“The others have to take the responsibility, but we are used to this,” says Stot.

On 21 March the first preparation camp for the play-offs against Finland was held and Stot recognised something very special.

“When we had our first training session, you could see it in the eyes of every player. They are motivated as I had never seen them before.

“They believe in themselves and we all share the dream to face some big names in the EURO 2018 Qualification even though we all know that we will never make it to any final tournament.”

The only time Luxembourg had been part of a major event was at the World Championship 1958, but they lost all their preliminary round match against Germany, France and Norway.


TEXT: Björn Pazen / ts
 
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