(by Steve Hopkins)
Most table tennis fans are familiar with Timo Boll’s team, Borussia Dusseldorf, and its long history of success in the German Budesliga. And in the US, many have been following another German team, Liebherr Ochsenhausen, as they have USA’s Kanak Jha and the other great player from this hemisphere, Brazil’s Hugo Calderano. But are you familiar with Fakel Gazprom Orenburg, the most dominant team in the Russian Champions League?
Orenburg is technically in the Southwest of Russia – which means its in Europe. But that city is close to the Kazakhstan border meaning it is closer to Iraq and Iran than it is to Germany and France. The City has a population of half a million and it is named after a fortress in the region in the 1700s. The team’s sponsor, Gazprom, is a global energy company – the largest public company in Russia.
The team’s captain is Vladimir Samsonov. They also include well-known German player Dimitrij Ovtcharov (who was born in Ukraine to a Russian table tennis champion) and Marcos Freitas (Portugal’s top player). A year ago, they upgraded their team by adding Lin Yun-Ju, the young Taiwanese player who is currently ranked No. 7 in the world. The one-two punch of the two Butterfly-sponsored players Ovtcharov (No. 12) and Lin (No. 7) have consistently put this team within striking distance of the best in Europe. Their past success have included domination in the Russian league, and 5 championships in the European Champions League (after their win in 2019 tied them with Dusseldorf for the most ECL titles, but last December Dusseldorf won and is back in the lead with their 6th title).
Fakel’s response to falling just short? They have signed Hugo Calderano (World No. 6) to join the squad this July. Calderano currently plays for Ochsenhausen and will be making a final run with that squad in the German League finals this Spring – but after that, Fakel could have a 3-man squad of No.6, No.7, No.12. That’s a squad that, if they were all from one country, would be seeded second at the World Championships behind China. If they do manage to keep their Top 3 together, expect them to make a strong run for the 2021 European Champions League Championships.
Fakel Gazprom is one of the most exciting teams in Europe and they are packed with recognizable players that are really fun to watch. The roster currently includes Calderano, Yun-Ju, and Freitas, three of the most popular Butterfly-sponsored players in the world. Fakel should be the team to watch this Fall.
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