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EHF Champions League

Adapt, improvise, overcome

Tom O'Brannagain

I was raised on stories of myth and legend. Of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn and how they fought internal and external threats. Of how the Sí (Faeries), the dead and the living exist side by side. The mythology of Ireland pits us against insurmountable odds, but somehow the hero prevails. It's embedded in my psyche. It's the reason I am working on the Champions League this year. Initially, I really questioned the validity and importance of resuming my commentary duties. It just seemed futile and insignificant in the broader scheme of things. But then I had a dream..... Not a Martin Luther King dream, but an "Aisling". Now the Aisling is a very important poetic style in the history of Irish literature. A poet, normally, falls asleep under the shade of a tree and a beautiful woman appears to him in his dream and warns him of the peril that besets the Emerald isle. But in the dream, all is not lost, because someone will come to rescue the day.

So I fell asleep one night, in my bed, and I kid you not, I was walking by a foggy lake and I heard a voice telling me not to be such a prima donna, that handball had been good to me and it was time to repay faith and love and to stick my oar in the water and pull. So the next day, as poets in the time of yore must have done, I signed my parchment, attached it to a pigeon and sent it winding its way to Vienna. And here I am, still with you, for good or bad, not a hero, but an infantryman marching to the sound of pipe and drum and trying against all prevailing logic to bring a little song to the melody of the game that is being played out in empty arenas throughout the continent.

Let me diverge slightly: I was a good young sportsman in my youth until, having been hit by a car at age 14, I spent six months recovering, learning to walk again. It taught me a valuable lesson; Adapt, improvise, overcome. I learned to be faster, to think and to avoid the big guy. That's life. That's sport. And this year that is the VELUX EHF FINAL4. For all the naysayers, the handball event of men's club handball will be beamed live to every home that wants to watch it despite setback after misfortune after impediment. It is the human spirit in action in the full glare of the public eye.

When the initial decision to play the event there was some negative reaction. A call to arms for all other teams that deserved the chance to qualify. I kept quiet thinking yes it’s hard, but the top four teams had achieved a serious target by approaching the group phase with absolute determination. It’s tough, but in the current circumstances deserved. That others thought the event should be cancelled is countered by the sheer force of will to make sure it goes ahead. Can you credit the ingenuity and stubbornness to overcome countless hurdles to make sure players have their day on court while the games are played in camera?

Now after a long and winding road we are on the cusp of an EHF FINAL4 that will be judged in a different light to all others. We talk of the calm before the storm, but there will be no storm. There will be no tumultuous applause or raucous and rapturous reception from live fans of teams entering the arena. No matter how we try to parse it, this is an event unlike any other.

And in that, there is a chance to reinvent. To revive an established formula. A chance for the media to think of new and innovative ways to involve you at home watching this event. It's not perfect, not even close, but in my mind, I would rather we had closure to the season past and to have a captain stand atop the podium than to leave an asterisk beside the year.

Too many people have toiled far harder and longer than I, to give up on the dream. The indomitable human spirit that says we can overcome. My first instinct was not to travel, but I have decided to go, if not only to show support and solidarity with the people I know who work behind the scenes but also to promote our sport in the only way I know how. For your information, they are moving me far away from the playing court so that I don't interfere with play.

It will be eerily quiet and uncannily challenging. For all of us and for the players especially. They are the ones who deserve our support and love more than anyone. Without them, we would have no reason this year to spill our beer on the carpet or jump up and down on the couch. They are fuelled by the roar of the crowd, but this year they must find an inner yearning and desire to fight for the coveted prize.

This is all about the one and his team. If they can overcome the surreality of the situation and find within themselves the embodiment of their heroes of old, then we the viewer will witness an event for the ages.

One of my first TV producers told me to look down the lens and see the person sitting in their favourite chair and speak directly to them. I've always tried to do that and feed off their energy. This time, I know you'll be there and your vociferous support for your team will drive me on.

The players are counting on it.

And you can count on us.

Stay safe wherever you are.

Tom O'Brannagain, EHFTV commentator

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