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30.09.2016, 16:28
A lifetime opportunity for Estonian handball
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THE ROAD TO 2020: Estonia’s top star Mait Patrail dreams of making it to the EHF EURO 2020 and with a pool of Estonian talents now playing in Europe’s top leagues chances for his dream come true are there
 

A lifetime opportunity for Estonian handball

Five years ago Estonia had already been close to their first EHF EURO participation.

It was 8 June 2011 and Estonia faced FYR Macedonia in a qualifier en route to the EHF EURO 2012. The home side had four points on their account, the Macedonians just three.

With only one more match to play afterwards, a win would have done and dusted the deal, but FYR Macedonia led by Kiril Lazarov, who scored 10 goals, showed no mercy, won 31:25 and eventually qualified for the EHF EURO 2012.

“We were highly motivated. Even though we knew that we were the underdogs against the Macedonians, we truly believed we can make it,” remembers left back Mait Patrail who plays for TSV Hannover-Burgdorf in the German Bundesliga.

Ever since Estonia have never been that close again to an EHF EURO participation, but with the field of participants expanding to 24 for the 2020 event in Sweden, Austria and Norway, the chance to be part is looming on the horizon and bigger than ever before.

This feature is the start of a series that will take a closer look at the nine teams participating in the first qualification phase for the Men’s EHF EURO 2020. The first matches in this phase are played at the beginning of November.

Photo: Mait Patrail in action for TSV Hannover-Burgdorf

A thorny path

For the first qualification phase, Estonia have been drawn to Group B together with Turkey and Kosovo. And while these two will meet at the beginning of November in a double-header, Estonia enter the race in January when they first meet Kosovo and then Turkey.

Only the group winners advance to the main qualification phase. The teams ranked second and third get another chance to progress with the European Trophy played in June 2017.

Mait Patrail is aware that the path is long and thorny: “At first we have to win this first qualification group. We are supposed to be the favourites, but Turkey have the advantage of playing the second leg against us at home. They are a strong team, too.”

“Having the opportunity to play a EURO is a great motivation and would mean a huge boost to handball in Estonia, but there are so many strong teams in Europe still ahead of us. They might be in a better position, but of course we will try everything to go all the way,” says Patrail.

The 28-year-old back court ace had been the only exceptional Estonian handball player for a long time. After stints at Kadetten Schaffhausen, TBV Lemgo and even in Qatar, he joined TSV Hannover-Burgdorf in 2012.

But more Estonian players have become good enough to play abroad. “Currently there are six of us in Germany who play in the Bundesliga or in the second division. Never before so many of us played in the strongest of all leagues,” says Patrail. “This is a good sign for the improvement and the future chances of our national team.”

In May 2016, for the first time, Estonian handball was even represented at the VELUX EHF FINAL4. Dener Jaanimaa was part of the THW Kiel squad – and extremely happy to be there: “This is a great day for Estonian handball and Estonian sports as a whole,” Jaanimaa said.

A lifetime opportunity

The participation at major national team events would have another advantage for Estonia’s players.

“We never played at a EURO or at a World Championship. Our clubs usually fail to reach the crucial stages of the European Cup competitions. This makes it extremely hard for Estonian players to promote themselves for clubs abroad,” says Patrail.

“They either need good managers or good contacts to have the chance for a trial, for example in Germany. Those talents, who just moved to Germany, were part of a strong junior generation which managed to gain international attention.”

The most recognised sports in Estonia are football and basketball, and currently even volleyball has surpassed handball in terms of interest.

For Patrail the reason is clear: “Our volleyball team qualified for some EURO events and hence they were in the media. And this is our hope: If we make it to the EURO once, the media and public interest for handball will grow rapidly.”


TEXT: Björn Pazen / ts
 
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