From nothing to the best-occupied team in Europe. The TTC Neu-Ulm is a bit the RB Leipzig of the table tennis Bundesliga. The club was only founded three years ago and landed in the Bundesliga with a wild card. Last season it was enough for eighth out of twelve in the TTBL. But now the team is aiming for the title in the Champions League.
This is made possible by the 64-year-old financier Florian Ebner. The sports-loving media entrepreneur signed four players from the top 10 in the world rankings in the summer: the Japanese Tomokazu Harimoto (19/No. 4), the Swede Truls Möregardh (20/No. 6 and Vice World Champion), the Taiwanese Lin Yun-Ju (21/No. 7) and the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov (34/No. 10).
The starting point for the project was the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. Ovtcharov, Olympic bronze medalist in Tokyo 2021 and former world number one, has terminated his contract with Russian top club Fakel Gazprom Orenburg after twelve years. He was born in Kyiv and didn’t want to play for a Russian club anymore. Ovtcharov called his acquaintance Ebner, the idea for the new super team came up. Ovtcharov became Ebner’s negotiator and contacted Möregardh, Yun-Ju and Harimoto. They were all under contract in Russia or about to move there and were looking for a new club.
“Everything was sealed in two days,” says Ebner. Ovtcharov signed for two years, the others for one year. Ebner provided the money. He doubled the budget from around 400,000 to 800,000 euros. “He made us very fair offers, although of course it doesn’t measure up to Orenburg,” says Ovtcharov. In Russia, the top players earned up to 800,000 euros per year, in Neu-Ulm a maximum of half that.
In the Bundesliga, Ovtcharov, Yin-Ju and Möregardh are used only irregularly, Harimoto not at all. The priority is the Champions League (16 participating clubs) and the Cup, where the Final Four will take place in Neu-Ulm.
The new Über team is not met with enthusiasm everywhere. “It’s a bit reminiscent of the very rich owners who call the shots in English football clubs,” says Olaf Gstettner, Managing Director of TTC Zugbrücke Grenzau. “Mr. Ebner is, so to speak, the table tennis sheikh for Neu-Ulm. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen. In any case, the fans are looking forward to such stars. But they also have to play regularly and form the core of the team so that it is credible and fair for all teams. At least that was the case in the first Bundesliga game.”
In the 3-1 win against Grünwettersbach, Ovtcharov won two games, Möregardh one. 320 spectators were in the sold-out Hermann-Köhl-Halle in Pfaffenhofen an der Roth. The home ground is 13 kilometers away. In the future, the club wants to play more often in the large ratiopharm arena (6,200 seats) in Neu-Ulm.
“Even if no one has said it publicly yet, one or the other will clench their fists in their pockets,” Ovtcharov also knows. “Most clubs can’t afford any of our four top players, now Neu-Ulm has all four. Envy may arise here and there.”
Ebner is happy about his coup: “As the saying goes: envy has to be worked for, compassion is given for free! We grabbed this unique opportunity. I also don’t know why the other clubs in Europe were asleep. Now we want to rock the Champions League.”
There you are there as in the TTBL by wildcard. The preliminary round ended confidently as the group first. After the exclusion of the Russian teams, the biggest competitors are Düsseldorf and Saarbrücken.
The text was written for the sports competence center (WELT, SPORT BILD, BILD) and first published in SPORT BILD.