European Handball Championship: Kai Häfner’s made-to-measure debut in the opening win

AOn the wide footpath in front of the “Lindner” team hotel, Kai Häfner looked tired and crumpled on Saturday morning. Mustard yellow cap, thick jacket, he stood in the cold of Bratislava and told how it felt to be the “man of the match” the night before. The street noise drowned out a lot. Sometimes a smile flitted across his face – without a doubt it was a made-to-measure debut for the experienced left-hander from MT Melsungen. Eight goals in ten attempts: Häfner played his part in the 33:29 victory of the national handball team at the start of the European Championships in Slovakia and Hungary against Belarus.

The colleagues from the pay channel “Sky” immediately called out a “Häfnermania” in Germany – he himself smiled and said: “I’ve had significantly more messages on my cell phone than after a bad game. And since I’m not a social media freak, everyone got an answer.” It wasn’t just his goals. “He also gave a lot of assists,” praised national coach Alfred Gislason, “it was the best game I’ve seen from him in the national jersey, and there were a lot of good ones.”

Häfner spotted spaces that no one else saw and pushed through tiny gaps: after a shaky start and a deficit at the break, he was mainly responsible for helping the team to secure victory. Kai Häfner is 32 years old, his star rose six years ago when he was nominated for the European Championships in Poland because Steffen Weinhold was injured – and then won the title.

Experienced and new axis

Most recently, however, Häfner had disappointed at the Olympic Games and was not considered for the international matches against Portugal in October. This also had to do with ongoing difficulties with the patella tendon. But not only. When rebuilding the national team, Gislasons has to try others. However, there is quite a drought in the half-right backcourt.

Gislason therefore trusted the new, experienced axis on the right against Belarus – Häfner, who can control attacks qua game intelligence, and Christoph Steinert, 31 years old. The man from Erlangen is a late debutant in DHB dress; Gislason likes his clever defensive behavior. In the club, Steinert is usually used half-right up front, in Häfner’s position. In the national team, however, Steinert moves to the right winger, covering in the strenuous half position, while Häfner moves defensively to the outside. “That relieves me a lot,” says Kai Häfner, “and I’ve got more energy in attack over the 60 minutes.” Gislason only allowed him short breaks against Belarus.

Häfner follows the discussion about his role in the rejuvenated team reluctantly – and slightly annoyed. He is the most experienced player after Patrick Wiencek. “I’m not the elder statesman now,” he says, “I still understand the language of the young people and I don’t go around explaining to everyone how things work.” resonate in fitness and strength. On the other hand, Häfner bravely endures the teasing of teammate Timo Kastening about his thinning hair.

The quiet professional refuses to be tempted by the view: “It was just a good game from me. I was also able to experience it differently.” On Sunday (6.00 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the European Handball Championship and on ARD) the Germans continue their game against Austria in Bratislava.

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