Muller and Luxembourg are ready for the next big thing
Luxembourg left back Martin Muller still remembers the first highlight of his handball career, but more than eight years later he is ready for another one.
It was on 30 October 2008 that Luxembourg faced France in the EHF EURO 2010 Qualification, and 5,000 spectators turned out to see the French reigning EHF EURO and world champions as well as and recently crowned Olympic gold medallists play.
Muller, back then he was 20 years old, scored four times in Luxembourg's 30:21 loss and still says: “It was a brilliant experience for a young player like me.”
The Luxembourg handball spectator record of 5,000 still stands today and for the first time in eight years the nation's men's national team has the opportunity to set up clashes against the likes of France and other handball powerhouses again.
Lesson learnt for Luxembourg?
Following two wins against Georgia in the EHF EURO 2020 Qualification, Luxembourg play for a spot in the second, the main, qualification phase against Italy on Wednesday and on Sunday. Both teams are on four points in Group C, and the aggregate winner of the direct duel will proceed to the next stage.
“There is a 50:50 chance for each of us and no favourite,” says Muller.
In May 2016, Luxembourg already had the chance to qualify for the second phase of the EHF EURO 2020 Qualification, but they lost the decisive play-offs against Finland.
A 28:23 defeat at home was too much of a burden and the 29:27 win away only a small consolation. “We lacked experience compared to the Finnish side; for the matches against Italy we now hope that we have learnt our lesson,” says Muller.
The start to the qualification campaign for the biggest EHF EURO ever with 24 participants has been a more than positive experience for Luxembourg so far. “We thought that Georgia would be stronger and show more resistance,” said Muller after his team's clear 31:24 and 35:29 victories last week.
“Now we are aiming high in two true finals against Italy. We have the great ambition to qualify for the next stage. To be among Europe’s top nations would be another boost for handball in Luxembourg.
“But we know that 120 minutes are ahead of us, we have to focus and have in mind that every goal might be decisive.”
The true strengths
Since 2008, Luxembourg have never made it past the first qualification phase for EHF EURO events and World Championships, but handball in the in the small country has been on a rise recently – also thanks to Muller's efforts.
In the 2012/13 season, HB Esch, the side Muller has been playing for for more than a decade, was the first Luxembourg club to qualify for a quarter-final of any EHF European Cup competition when they reached the Round of the last 8 in the Challenge Cup.
Esch even went all the way to the final SKA Minsk. 3,250 fans saw Esch losing the first leg 31:26 at home. The team also lost the second leg, 32:24, but Muller became the top scorer of the Challenge Cup season with 84 goals.
“We always turned first leg defeats around on home ground, this has always been the strength of Esch and Luxembourg. So it might be a bad omen that we play the second leg at Italy next week,” he says.
In his team, all players are fit for the “finals”, including left hander Alen Zekan who has recovered from an injury. Muller: “We again hope for a big crowd and a huge support from the stands in the COQUE arena.”
Even though for the first time 24 teams will be part of the EHF EURO 2020 in Sweden, Norway and Austria, Luxembourg's players do not think that far: “You can only be successful if you take it match after match.
“Now we have ticked off Georgia and prepare for Italy. Once we know the outcome, we think what is coming next. 2020 is too far away at the moment”, says Muller.
TEXT: Björn Pazen / br