Nils Lichtlein – Berlin's jewel is in the fast lane
Some top-class players never make it to any major final of international competitions throughout their entire career. Some enter the world of top handball on the fast lane: Nils Lichtlein is 21 years old, and in the last six months, he has enjoyed a handball life at the speed of light. In May, at the age of 20, he not only played in his first-ever international final but, in the second half, was a core part of the Füchse Berlin squad, which took the European League trophy at the EHF finals in Flensburg, beating Granollers in the final.
2 July – by now – was Lichtlein's most significant day of his life: In the sold-out Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin – his home ground with Füchse – more than 9,000 fans cheered for the German U21 team, which became Junior World Champions, and in addition, the centre and right back Lichtlein was awarded MVP of the World Championships.
Lichtlein took a unique souvenir with him from the most significant success of his career to date: the official "U21 World Champions" sign attached to the winner's podium is now in Lichtlein's apartment. "I am reminded of this success daily," says the 21-year-old left-hander. Last Sunday, Lichtlein played his third international final within six months – and lost it dramatically: at the IHF Super Globe in Saudi Arabia, Füchse were defeated 32:34 after extra-time by their compatriots and EHF Champions League winners SC Magdeburg.
And this moment, when Magdeburg entered the winners' podium, it was something Lichtlein had not experienced for a long time: a defeat in an official match. The German U21 won all eight matches at the World Championship on home ground; Füchse Berlin did not lose any of their 17 matches in four competitions until Sunday – and only gave one point from their grasps in German Bundesliga against Gummersbach but won 16 times. In Saudi Arabia, Lichtlein had a huge impact on Füchse's sensational semi-final win against Barça. First, he scored the last goal in the regular time, which shifted Berlin to extra-time, and then he netted the winning goal against the EHF Champions League record winners. Lichtlein was unbeaten in 27 matches in a row since 20 June before losing to Magdeburg, including two men's national team matches.
Since becoming U21 world champion, Lichtlein is under the spotlight: "My life outside of handball hasn't changed much; in terms of sport, it's different. I have much more playing time, take on more responsibility, and currently have the chance to show what I am capable of." After Jacob Holm left the club towards Paris and Paul Drux and Fabian Wiede are currently out injured, Berlin did not sign a short-term new arrival but count on their top talent. "Nils is playing an extra-ordinary season; he is one for the future of the club" says Füchse sports director Stefan Kretzschmar." And Nils Lichtlein, the nephew of 2016 EHF EURO champion and German goalkeeping legend Carsten Lichtlein, is proud too: "This is a great confirmation for me that the club backs me with confidence."
Forty-eight hours after the final in the desert, the next huge hurdle is ahead for Füchse Berlin and their youngster Nils Lichtlein, facing their prominent EHF European League group phase opponent Dinamo Bucuresti on home ground on Tuesday (20:45 CET, live on EHFTV). "Bucharest are a team that belongs in the Champions League; they have a star selection with a top coach and world-class players. It will be a real tough test for us," states Lichtlein.
Both sides won their first two matches against Chambery and Izvidac, and Rounds 3 and 4 will decide which team will finish on top in the end and how many points both sides carry to the main round. Berlin have played four matches within six days at the IHF Super Globe, including a semi-final and a final with extra-time. Their superstar Mathias Gidsel was awarded MVP of the tournament, which he also finished as top scorer. Besides that, Hans Lindberg, Lasse Andersson, and goalkeeper Dejan Milosavljev were part of the All-Star Team.
But why did the incredibly strong Füchse start in the 2023/24 season? "Our two Danes in the backcourt, Mathias Gidsel and Lasse Andersson are currently performing very well, the defence is very stable, especially in the middle block, and our goalkeepers are strong. That's why we get into the attacking game well and make good decisions," says Nils Lichtlein, who arrived at the Füchse youth team from Regensburg at the age of 14 and had already won four German championships with the Füchse youth teams before he switched to the professional squad in 2021.
View this post on Instagram
"Nils is a diamond," praises Füchse director Bob Hanning: "He has the rare gift to play one second in the future, he can read the match like no other. And still, he needs three to four years to develop. I am sure that he will become the face of the team in the future." This is why Füchse extended the contract with their "jewel" until 2026 – including special advice for the top talent: "Nils has to gain weight and muscles, at least five kilos to stand the heat in defence," says Hanning. And the fans at Berlin love Lichtlein: His playing shirt ranks third in sales just below the ones of Gidsel and Lindberg in the Füchse merchandising shop.
Finally, even German national team coach Alfred Gislason became a fan of the high-flyer: As Drux, Wiede, Luca Witzke and Marian Michalczik had to cancel their participation for the two test matches against Egypt for the EHF EURO 2024 hosts at the beginning of November, the Icelander nominated the top talent for the first time for a men's national team match. Lichtlein was part of both matches, scored his first three goals in the new environment – and now hopes to be part of the first-ever Men's European Championship on German ground. "It was really special to play in the men's team," he said after his debut.
Lichtlein is the leading figure among those five U21 World Champions in the Füchse squad – but also Tim Freihöfer, Lasse Ludwig, Matthes Langhoff and Max Beneke have left their marks, already in the successful 2022/23 European League season. "We have a different concept compared to other top clubs," says sports director Stefan Kretzschmar: "Besides signing world-class players such as Mathias Gidsel, we count on our youth program, which is an integral part of the Füchse DNA. This is why it might take some years to achieve our major goals, such as becoming German champions for the first time or winning the Champions League."
But first, it is Berlin's goal to finish their European League group on top – and therefore, need to win against Dinamo Bucuresti on Tuesday. Lichtlein: "Of course, we aim to win all potential trophies this season, including defending the title in the European League. But this competition is stronger than ever before. To make it to the EHF finals will be no walk in the park."
Photos: Axel Heimken / kolektiff & Füchse Berlin