“We intend to defend our title”
September 21, 2021
By J. Schuetz
Last year in the midst of the Covid pandemic, three German internationals Julia Behnke, Emily Boelk and Alicia Stolle made their move and joined the Hungarian top club FTC Railcargo for the 2020/21 season. While Behnke opted out of her two-year agreement with the Russian champion, Rostov-Don, Boelk and Stolle left Thueringer HC, the dominating club in Germany’s HBL of the previous decade.
Decisions which would turn into a success story despite the uncertainties caused by the widespread disease and the imponderables which come along with a move to a foreign country. Alicia Stolle faced a particular challenge as she joined FTC with an injury, followed by a Covid infection that would prevent her from making a medal run at EURO 2020 with the German national team.
Fast forward to May 28, 2021. Location: Elek Gyula Arena, Budapest. Inside the compact hall FTC Railcargo just defeated MTK Budapest 35:21, the final act before an energized crowd began celebrating the club’s 13th national championship. Not a given ever since league rival Gyoer began dominating Nemzeti Bajnoksag – Hungary’s national handball league, in recent years. FTC’s previous title dated back to the 2014/15 season. A 9-goal victory against Gyoer only weeks earlier laid the foundation for the triumph in the 2020/21 season and Behnke, Boelk and Stolle were an integral part of the team effort.
stregspiller.com caught up with the trio on the eve of FTC’s second round Champions League match of the 2021/22 season against the Croatian representative, Podravka Vegeta. Julia Behnke, Emily Boelk and Alicia Stolle took the time to reflect on the past twelve months, handball in Hungary, the successful championship run and the road ahead.
How did you experience your first year in Hungary?
E. Boelk: “I was very much looking forward to the move (to join FTC ed.) as it was my first step of playing abroad. Everything I was hoping for came true, but topping it all with the championship was just outstanding. Towards the end of last season, spectators were allowed back in the arena and that made it even more special. All in all it was an amazing first year and it will be a challenge to top it. On the flip side, our result in the Hungarian cup FINAL4 (Magyar Kupa ed.) was not what we expected and we’ll aim do better this year. Likewise, we exited the Champions League too early. So, we still have goals to achieve and despite significant additions to the roster of Gyoer we will not roll over without putting up a fight – we intend to defend our title. In sum, I am very happy with my first year and I could not have asked for more.”
A. Stolle: “My situation was a bit different, of course. I arrived in Budapest with an injury which lasted quite some time and then I caught Covid and missed the European championship because of it. All of it made it more difficult when adjusting to being abroad and dealing with a new language. Initially, it was a set back, but ever since the beginning of this year it took a turn for the better, once I was able to fully participate in practice sessions again. Still, you realize that everything gets a bit more complicated when you are in a foreign country. You miss the time lost during recovery, the integration into a new team, and learning a new system becomes more of a challenge, but towards the end of last season it worked out better and better. And, that’s why I am very hopeful and happy that in the run-up of the current season everything went smooth and that we had a decent start. Now, I look forward that this season will become “my year” and that it will all work out as I expect it.
“This aside, I can only confirm what Emily just said – crowning last season with a title was just amazing. But, it also showed me how everything can change if things don’t turn out as expected. It certainly was an experience which helped me in my personal development. You grow because of it. ”
J. Behnke: I can only agree – last year’s championship was an absolute highlight. It will be tough this season, but we are very motivated to continue on our successful path. Especially, in the Champions League we want to go further. The two elimination matches (against ZRK Buducnost ed.) represented a low point, but you do learn about yourself and I think as a team we grew stronger because of the experience. Set-backs are part of sport and right now the team spirit is excellent, the coaching staff is great and every player is highly motivated.”
As the three German players are one group of only two other foreign nationals in an otherwise all Hungarian team to what extend does language present a barrier?
J. Behnke: Most of the communication still happens in English – let’s face it Hungarian is a very difficult language to master. We do learn and we do have an instructor, but during practice sessions, video presentations and time-outs a translator is present. Especially, when it gets hectic in matches it’s a challenge to follow the language. When everything is calm it’s working better, yet you do need a teacher. It would be very hard to study the language on your own.”
E. Boelk: Agreed. It certainly is the most difficult language I have been confronted with thus far. I tried to prepare myself prior to my arrival in Hungary with an online teacher. And, it does help if you make an effort to learn the language. Hungarians do appreciate it when you try to speak a few sentences and are open minded toward a new language and culture. Still, I am far from being able to converse fluently. “Hungarian handball talk” is a different matter as you listen to the same terminology during practice sessions on a daily basis. It works ok. The rest of the team does speak very good English and this helps, of course. Although, it (Hungarian ed.) is a difficult language it doesn’t present a real obstacle on the pitch.”
A. Stolle: Yes – it’s a challenge. Thank goodness we always have a translator present and ‘yes’ learning Hungarian is a bit more of difficult compared to studying French, for example.”
How does “Handball Made in Hungary” compare to the German HBL considering club organization, training sessions, media coverage etc.?
J. Behnke: “Indeed there is a big difference compared to Germany when you look at the overall conditions here in Hungary. Almost every team have their own arena, whereas in Germany you often have to rely on schools to get access to their halls to practice. As a consequence you are free to schedule training sessions in contrast to Germany where you have to wait until a facility is available. At FTC we are done with our daily work around 16:00 hours because we can practice in the morning or early afternoon. We also enjoy more flexibility adjusting our training to the match schedule. For example, when we are set to play a match on a Wednesday at 18:00 hours, we will organize our practice the day before around the same time – let’s say around 17:00 hours. This way we are in a better position to get into the rhythm prior to game day.
“Other then that we enjoy the luxury of relatively short trips given the geography of Hungary and the location of the various clubs. For example, last Wednesday we had a game on the road at 18:00 hours and by 21:00 hours we were already back home. It allows for more and better time to recover after a match.”
E. Boelk: “When talking about media coverage – in Hungary you can watch handball every time games are scheduled on the national level. Champions League matches will always be shown on TV. In general, handball has another status in Hungary. Yesterday, I was watching a men’s Champions League fight and in the pre-game show they already announced a match in the German men’s handball league as well as the Champions League game of Dortmund’s women later in the week. Media attention and presence is just at a completely different level.
“In the club as well – FTC has a dedicated individual who takes care of requests from the press all the way to social media coverage. It’s very well organized and the professional structures of the club are well aligned. We should not forget that there is some financial support from the government as well which helps to build and support such framework. At FTC we have a gym right next to our arena which we have access to and can use 24/7, for example.
“In the league itself almost all players are professionals which is no comparison to Germany. Access to funding goes a long way in creating this kind of infrastructure.”
A. Stolle: “We often get the question how strong the league really is? Of course, we do encounter teams who we defeat by a wide margin, similar to some clubs in the HBL. Then there are key matches like the ones against Gyoer, for example, as well as some other teams which can turn into very close encounters. Initially, we did expect a bit tougher competition compared to the experience in the first year.
“All in all, the conditions here at FTC are very good and so much feels easier because of it.”
Emily, you mentioned that handball has a different media status in Hungary. Back in Germany TV coverage – if at all – is mostly focused on men’s handball. What can German media managers learn from their colleagues in Hungary?
E. Boelk: “I wish… Alicia you go for it.
A. Stolle: “Yes, it’s fantastic that so many handball games are on TV here in Hungary. And, of course, it would be great if more women handball games would be shown on German TV as well. It’s not a given that we are on (German ed.) TV even with the national team. As Emily pointed out, here in Hungary the Champions League match of Dortmund’s can be watched on free TV. That says a lot. It would be desirable and much appreciated if women’s handball would receive better media coverage in Germany as well.”
Looking at the 2021/22 season and the ambitions in the DELO EHF Champions League, FTC is currently plagued by a shortage on the center-back position. Aniko Kovacsics, Nikolett Toth, and Zita Szucsanszki are all injured and Montenegro’s, Itana Grbic, has joined the Hungarian champions on short notice. What’s the impact?
J. Behnke: “Yes, three players are recovering from shoulder and foot injuries respectively and it’s unclear when exactly they will be back on the pitch. But, Itana is an experienced player and she is “at home” covering this position, while we have Emily as an alternative to direct the game if necessary. Emily?”
E. Boelk: “Well – it would not be the first time that I would cover the center-back position. In Buxtehude as well as at Thueringer HC there was a time when I occupied it. For example, during the time when Iveta (Koresova ed.) was pregnant. Still, the position demands additional requirements – a few more aspects that you have to take into consideration. Who could have expected three long term injuries on one and the same position? But, that’s how it is, right now. Even if we would have a shortage in goal, I think everybody would step up and be ready to assume the position for the time being.
“No matter what, we are at the beginning of the season and we are in good physical shape to cope with the injuries. Hopefully, all three of them will be joining us as soon as possible again.”
It’s still early in the DELO EHF Champions League season and many players have changed teams – how do you rate FTC’s prospects in Group A after your first match in Dortmund?
E. Boelk: The point we lost in Dortmund hurts – I think I can speak for all of us. We certainly had a different objective going into the game. Still, we have to take into consideration a rather short pre-season because of the Olympic games in Tokyo and the aforementioned injured players when appreciating our current performance level. At this point not everything is running as smooth as we wish and over the course of 60 minutes we don’t reach the high level that we all expect.
“That’s the case with some of the other teams as well – just you look at the result of Krim in Savehof. We will see similar surprises in due course, I think.
“That said I do expect us to advance to the next stage of the competition. But, as long as we have the long injured list every match will be extremely tough – we will have to stay focused and push as hard as we can.”
Do the three of you feel added pressure to step up even more given the list of absentees?
J. Behnke: “I don’t sense extra pressure that’s not how the club operates. Of course, we do analyze all the games we lose, but it’s all happening in a very business-like manner. In the practice sessions that follow every player receives support to build confidence again. It’s all handled very well. We do have a quality roster that can perform on a high level and I would characterize the current situation as a period where we collectively have to assume more responsibilities.”
A. Stolle: “I completely agree with Jule. Every player is appreciative of the trust they receive from the coaching staff and the other teammates. Yes, the club has expectations and we do have our objectives, but it does not translate into increased pressure on any particular player.”
Let’s leave the handball court. After one year in Hungary what do you appreciate most and is there anything you miss?
E. Boelk: “Considering that we came to Hungary in the middle of the Corona pandemic, we did not have so much time to experience the country or the city of Budapest. Most of the time we travel back-and-forth between training sessions and our apartments. But, the people here are very warm and welcoming. For example, in my first week in Hungary I was shopping together with my mom who was visiting. Initially, it could last an hour or so until you found everything and knew where to go. On one occasion an elderly woman, who overheard us talking in German, helped us out while communicating in very basic German terms. I found this very thoughtful. It’s the same within the team – everybody is very helpful.
“Budapest as a city is just wonderful and there are so many sites worth seeing. The list of where to go next gets longer by the day. All in all a very positive experience, thus far.”
J. Behnke: All true – there’s really nothing you’ll miss here and if the borders are open it’s easy to travel back home if time permits.
A. Stolle: We are all happy that the borders are open again. During the first year it was a bit difficult that no one could visit or vice versa. I am very appreciative of the fact that friends and family are now free to travel again.
Talk about limitations – when traveling though Hungary it looks and feels like the Covid pandemic is a thing of the past when compared to other countries in Europe. Do you agree with the observation?
E. Boelk: Yes – sort of. You have to show a vaccination certificate to be part of in-door activities. This regiment began in late spring already and Hungary took this decision early on. Today, it’s more like you have to be vaccinated or show proof of having recovered from Covid. The requirement to cover mouth and nose with a mask was dropped rather soon as well. When we arrived in Budapest, in the summer 2020, wearing our masks the taxi driver advised us that there was no such rule anymore. It certainly was an adjustment, but at the same time it felt good to experience a more normal life again.
“But, you also have to keep in mind that a lot less people live in this country. I really hope that it all works out.”