Gintaras Savukynas gave his players the weekend before the start of the second Bundesliga season. For the first time since mid-July. Since then he has been training with the HC Motor Zaporizhzhia team almost continuously. Since then there have been several friendlies – almost like normal preparation. But only almost. Because the situation of the Ukrainian handball players is anything but normal.
The Zaporizhzhia team has been based in Düsseldorf since the beginning of July. After the game was no longer possible in their home country due to the Russian invasion, Savukynas and his club set out to find a new way to continue their sport. “We held talks with several federations, but the conditions were best for us in Germany,” says the coach, who is well acquainted with the terrain here.
For some time now, the team has been going to Germany during the summer break to complete training camps, has good contacts through participation in the Champions League and has also received help from the national association. “We didn’t know exactly what to expect here. But people have done a lot for us and made everything possible so that we can continue playing handball here,” says Savukynas.
A competition in the first division was not possible, but the clubs agree to a non-competitive participation in the second division. For this purpose, the necessary infrastructure was set up in the sports city of Düsseldorf, the Castello was made available as a training and playing facility and ultimately it was also ensured that players, support staff and Co. and their families can live in the city on the Rhine.
“Of course it was difficult at first,” says the native Lithuanian and initially refers to the sporting challenges. The team did not see each other from February to July. Some players had signed on from other clubs, such as goalkeeper Gennadiy Komok, who donned the jersey of Bundesliga club HSG Wetzlar at the end of last season.
Others, on the other hand, had no opportunity to remain active. Still others have permanently looked for a new club, so that the squad now consists of many young Ukrainian handball players. But that is of course only one side. Because all these Ukrainians – only three players have another nationality – understandably often have their thoughts in their homeland, with relatives and friends who have stayed behind.
Almost every day there are not only new headlines about the war in the news, Zaporizhzhia is always present with its contested nuclear power plant. “So much happens every day at the boys’ house. The head is scattered and it’s sometimes difficult to concentrate on the job here,” reports the 51-year-old coach.
At the moment he has to do a lot of mental development work. “The players now need more contact and more talks, but we have to make sure that we get through this together.” Savukynas almost exudes a certain sobriety when he talks about the current challenges.
Sober in that, on the one hand, the events are difficult to put into words and, on the other hand, because as an individual he can hardly do anything in this dramatic situation. “That’s why it’s important that we can play handball at all. That’s at least a little piece of normality,” says Savukynas, who is all the more dedicated to his duties as a coach.
And there is a lot to do for the former national player. After all, this year his team is not playing against the other seven proven opponents in the Ukrainian league or against opponents in the SEHA League, but has to prove itself against 19 clubs from Germany, some of whom are unknown to him.
“We still have a lot to do and correct. The team still needs to grow. But that’s normal and we’re taking our steps,” says Savukynas. “It will be something completely different this year. Not only in terms of the number of games, but also the level of the opponents is much higher than what we are used to from Ukraine. But that’s an advantage in terms of challenging us and gaining experience.”
Since 2013, Zaporizhzhia has won the national title every year, seeking its challenges mainly in the Champions League. This year, however, the European Handball Federation (EHF) decided not to include the club in the Champions League “due to organizational uncertainties” and only allow it to start in the European League.
“It’s a decision we can’t change. But we play in the second highest European league and meet high-ranking clubs there. In this situation, that’s good for us. Of course we have sporting aspirations, but right now it’s more about keeping the club and the team alive,” says Savukynas. Before things get going on the international stage in October, the Ukrainians will start the new Bundesliga season in Germany.
While the first game of the handball year is usually marked by the Supercup, on Wednesday Zaporizhzhia and second division companion TSV Bayer Dormagen (4:15 p.m. / Sportdeutschland.tv) meet in Düsseldorf before the encounter between the German champions SC Magdeburg and the German cup winners THW Kiel (7 p.m. / Sky) is kicked off.
“We are ready and we want to do our job as best we can here,” says Savukynas, emphasizing that he and his team want to finish the season in Germany, regardless of developments in Ukraine. “To be honest, I don’t know , how things are going with the other Ukrainian teams we would otherwise play against. And we don’t know what we can expect in the next few weeks and months,” says the coach.
In football, league operations in Ukraine have now resumed. Most recently, however, a game had to be interrupted several times due to a bomb alarm. The 51-year-old does not believe that handball will also be continued. “I have trouble imagining it. Still, we hope that one day it will be safe to return to Ukraine. But who knows how long that will take,” says Gintaras Savukynas. For him and his team, normalcy is hardly to be thought of.