Frey hopes for “another perfect day”
Sonja Frey was six years old when Austria won their first, and only, medal at a Women’s IHF World Championship – bronze in 1999 in Norway.
Ten years later, at the age of 16, Frey became part of the national team, which finished 10th at the worlds in China. It would be Austria’s last appearance at a major event – EHF EURO, World Championship or Olympics – for at least the next 12 years.
Of course, Austria will play at the EHF EURO 2024 as one of the co-hosts, but the team from head coach Herbert Müller can end their wait already in 2021.
Austria will face Poland in one of the 10 play-off ties for the World Championship 2021 in Spain in December, with the first leg being played at home in Maria Enzersdorf on Friday 16 April (throw-off at 18:10 CEST) and the second leg away in Marki on Tuesday 20 April (at 18:00 CEST). Both matches will be streamed live on EHFTV.
“Of course, we are not the favourites against Poland. But they are a different kind of opponent compared to Netherlands, Spain, Hungary or Romania, who were always our obstacles on the way to a major event in recent years,” Frey said.
The 27-year-old left wing, who can also play as centre back, is one of the most experienced members of Müller’s squad.
“If we have another perfect day, or even two, we have the chance to make it to the World Championship,” Frey said. “We were really happy when we saw the draw this time. We could have faced a much stronger opponent from that pot. We accept the challenge, and we have a chance if we give 100 per cent twice.”
Austria reached the play-offs by winning the group it hosted in phase 1, when they defeated Kosovo and Italy. Frey and Patricia Kovacs, another internationally experienced player of the team, missed those matches due to injuries.
“This was a perfect dress rehearsal for our rising stars and young talents. They could learn and take responsibility, and though they started quite nervous, they finally took two dominant victories,” Frey said.
Frey currently plays for Danish side Team Esbjerg, who were in the DELO EHF Champions League play-offs this season, after several years in Germany (Thüringer HC) and France (Dijon, Paris 92). Next season, she will join EHF European League semi-finalists Herning-Ikast in Denmark.
“It is always a huge pleasure and anticipation for me to come home for the national team,” Frey said. “I know most of the players for many years, though we have some new faces in the squad. As it is impossible to follow the Austrian league on Danish TV, some girls are new for me, but I am sure that with the current squad we will play for some more years.”
Against Poland, Austria will be hoping for a similar upset like they caused in September 2017, when they defeated mighty Russia 27:25 with seven goals from Frey in an EHF EURO 2018 Qualifier.
Unfortunately, Austria lost the reverse fixture in Astrakhan six months later (26:25, with 12 goals from Anna Vyakhireva) and just missed qualification for the finals tournament in France – where Russia would reach the final.
“If we show a performance like this, we have a chance against Poland. But we know who we are and where we come from. In women’s handball, Austria is a small nation, and we lack the international experience and the toughness you only get when you play abroad,” said Frey, who left Austria nine years ago.
We were really happy when we saw the draw this time. We could have faced a much stronger opponent from that pot. We accept the challenge, and we have a chance if we give 100 per cent twice.
Having played 90 international matches, Frey is the current top scorer of Austria, with 432 goals, just six ahead of THC’s Beate Scheffknecht, who played 102 times for the national team.
Another THC player, goalkeeper Petra Blazek, is the most experienced squad member, with 197 matches.
Since her national team debut in 2009, and also during her four-year stint at THC from 2012-16, Frey has been working with Müller as coach: “It is always positive when you know someone that good. Herbert Müller is experienced and knows, how to deal with us.”
From the tactical point of view, Frey and her teammates firstly “focus on our style rather than on Poland. We are highly motivated, as the gap between us and Poland is hopefully not that huge as, for example, between us and Russia.”
Austria and Poland last met in qualification for the World Championship 2011, when the team of Frey and Müller lost 33:26. While Austria have not been to a major event since, Poland played at the EHF EURO 2020 in Denmark last December, finishing 14th after earning just one point – against Germany.
Photos: RFEBM-J.L. Recio & ÖHB-Agentur Diener-Eva Manhart