From Eric Kindler – Team USA
In the world championships in 2015, I came in already interested in playing internationally due to the level of play in the US and lack of structure being unattractive for a competitive fistball player. I knew that traveling and experiencing how another country makes it work would ultimately help me build something back home.Initially, I reached out to my coach Gastao Englert about my interest in playing in Europe. Due to his vast connections in the world of fistball and his knowledge of my level of play, he was by far the best option to start my search for an interested club. After some time, Alwin Oberkersch of Stuttgart responded to Gastao’s email saying he could help make this happen in Germany and in fact maybe in Stuttgart. Honestly, I was extremely excited and I did a lot of research on Stuttgart, but I knew that I shouldn’t decide before the world championships. Back in the 2011 world championship in Austria, I may have made this mistake by deciding to go to Brazil before the tournament started. After a match at the 2011 championship in Kremsmünster, the club of Kremsmünster ironically showed interest in me as a defender and I unknowingly declined. Perhaps this was a good thing though because Brazil is where I really learned how to become a striker and that was my goal in the future.
So finally, the world championships in Argentina 2015 are in a way, my tryout to show what I can do and what I have learned in the last 4 years of training in Brazil and the US. In fact, our team underperformed to what we knew we were capable of. Probably our best match was against Austria in the rain although we lost. The disappointment of falling short of our goal of making it to the World Games weighed heavier on some than others, but our level of play was a big step in the right direction in terms international respect. After our final match, many guys started to celebrate after a long tournament. Also, this period after the matches is usually when all of the players really start to seek out old friends and also create new ones. While watching the final between Germany and Switzerland, the Austrian team was close by and the connections started to happen. I figured now was the time to make things happen. I spoke with many of the guys from the Austrian team including Siggy Simon, Jean Andrioli, Klemens Kronsteiner, Klaus Thaller, and Hari Puehringer. I mentioned interest in playing in Europe and they all joked that I should come to each of their clubs. It was a very special feeling whether they were serious or not that they were, in a way, fighting over me.
As if it was destiny, I and another teammate Steve Kucera missed our transportation back to our hotel after the final. The Austrian bus came to our aid and instead of going back to our hotel, we hopped in and continued to celebrate at their pool. Much more discussion about fistball was had and friendships were built around this special game we love.
Probably less than a month after the championship, I reached out to Klemens about seriously coming to Austria. It may have been the most difficult thing I have ever done in the fistball world, but I knew that if I really wanted to make this dream happen, I would have to be bold. To my surprise, he responded professionally and said he wanted to help make it happen. He reached out to the club to see what was possible and if having an American player in Kremsmünster was worth it to them. After many back and forth messages about the content of my potential stay, I made the decision that this was the dream and experience I wanted. For sure it is the one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I had a list of things to take care of before buying my flight and a major one was the visa. Without a visa you are able to stay for 90 days in the Schengen region. Getting a visa to stay longer was complicated. Just to apply for a visa, I would have had to fly about 3 hours to New York. Fortunately, the Bundesliga spring season happened to fit in the 90 days and I could go without a visa. After I found out this information, as strategically as possible, I planned my trip with my new coach Dietmar ‘Diez’ Winterleitner. I arrived April 11th in Salzburg, Austria and was greeted by a friendly faced Klemens. The first 3 weeks I was to stay with Klemens and the rest of the time I was to stay with a referee Joachim Huthmann.
The plan all along for my trip to Austria was to learn as much as possible and to bring back what I learned to the US. My first goal was to become an official referee. Fortunately, having a referee as a host made it easy. We spent maybe two days going through rules about fistball that I should already know and also learning about posture and how to conduct yourself in situations as a referee. Proudly, I am the first American Salzburg ‘Landesschiedsrichter’ or state/region of Salzburg referee. I refereed a third division game and was happy to receive a good review from internationally certified referee Joachim. To my surprise, referees in the first and second divisions get paid. This opened my eyes to the system in place in Austria and the professionalism that they have.
Although I was thousands of miles away from home, I felt like I was at home. The club of Kremsmünster and Joachim were extremely welcoming and the only problems I had was to learn all the names and earn their respect. Fortunately, the next weekend was a tournament in Stuttgart and I could show what I have to offer the team other than a new friend from America. We placed 8th in the tournament and had a lot of fun doing it. A win against the eventual tournament champion Oberndorf and a strong showing without Klemens against Urfahr were some highlights. A couple of games of ‘Hosen obi’ (a card game) set the tone for many laughs and bets as well outside of the fistball games. The loser usually has to do some sort of dare such as cleaning all of the shoes or buying the next round of beers. I happened to lose one game and have a special dare I have yet to do! The tournament definitely brought myself and the team closer as we prepared for the start of the Bundesliga.
The league start was not the prettiest. We had some shoulder injuries that weren’t helping our team perform its’ best, but we were able to win the first game pretty handily. It was a shock to me that I was starting on such a high caliber and much respected team. I was honored to represent Kremsmünster although nervous about my performance. The season for sure was a rocky one. Grieskirchen was the clear favorite after beating us 4:1 and they eventually won the table. The third game against Vöcklabruck was a struggle. Klemens shoulder needed rest and I moved into the service role. I did my best but it was ineffective and we suffered a 4:0 loss. After a frustrating loss like that, the team pulled together and refocused for Urfahr. The Urfahr attack struggled and ultimately gave us the momentum the entire match. We took advantage of the situation and made a statement to the league that we were ‘down but not dead’ in a 4:0 domination win. The last match against Freistadt was critical in terms of placement for the play offs. A win potentially put us in second place and a loss placed us in the middle of the pack and a tougher way to the final. Fortunately, we brought our best to Freistadt and came out with a 4:1 win putting us second going into the play offs.
Playoff fistball! A special excitement, higher focus, and elevated intensity filled the practices the week of the first quarterfinal match against Vöcklabruck. After being more or less embarassed the last time without Klemens, we were ready and defeated Vöcklabruck twice 4:2 to make it to the final 3 teams. I was super excited. I was the first American to play in the Austrian Bundesliga and I would be the first to get a medal! The semi-final game would be the day before the final at ’home‘ in Kremsmünster against Freistadt. That day happened to be incredibly hot and sunny making the field very hard and very fast. This match was a difficult one, I could do nothing right and Christopher Ahrens played uncharacteristically poor. We both were replaced in the game physically, but of course, not in spirit for the team. Markus Ahrens probably played the game of his life filling in for Christopher Ahrens and Georg Kerbl steadied the unstableness that was the right front position I played. It was a special game for us to win 4:2 in front of a home crowd and for me to climb higher into the medal category.
Expectations of about 500+ fans were to be at the Bundesliga final between Grieskirchen and Kremsmünster. The day was threatening poor weather around game time and ultimately rain, wind, and lightning were a large part of the match. Something about the team that day was different. There was a determined look to break the championship drought in the outdoor championship category. Warm ups were very complicated due to uninvited 20 mph wind gusts and eventually sideways rain. Although the weather wasn’t ideal, the match was to go on. Very early in the first set, Klemens served a laughable ball out of bounds due to a gust of wind and it was very apparent the elements were taking over the game. Although the weather was difficult to play in, our team, including myself, decided to play our absolute best fistball for the crowd at the Kremsmünster stadium winning the first and second set. A distracting forty-five minute pause after the second set extended the match time and patience of the players and fans. After a brief warm up once the field conditions were ‘playable’, the game was underway again. It was clear at this point that Kremsmünster would not be denied the championship. The momentum Klemens and the team carried into the break was even stronger after it and Grieskirchen was defeated 4:0 in the Austrian final. Literally, it was the perfect ‘storm’ of events and I will never forget it.
Klemens’ exceptional and emotional play earned him MVP of the match. For him, it was his planned retirement from the Kremsmünster team due to a child on the way. Amazingly for him, his beautiful boy Valentin arrived the next day completing his emotional weekend of fistball and family.
The biggest difference between US Fistball and Austrian Fistball for sure is commitment. Many people that play in the US only do it for fun and have no interest in practicing. I am proud that I overcame the deficit that exists in the US. In Austria, everyone practices because they know they have to. It is inscribed in their clubs DNA and it drives the competition in the leagues and tournaments. I hope that my experiences in Austria help the US Association grow into something comparable to the structure and consistency that exists in Europe. I also encourage others to do as I did, and experience the growing world of fistball!