TTC Neu-Ulm: Big table tennis dispute: league withdrawal or star farewell?

How big the dispute between the table tennis Bundesliga (TTBL) and their currently most dazzling product is, everyone could read publicly on Monday evening.

TTC Neu-Ulm: Big table tennis dispute: league withdrawal or star farewell?

How big the dispute between the table tennis Bundesliga (TTBL) and their currently most dazzling product is, everyone could read publicly on Monday evening. Former world number one Dimitrij Ovtcharov spoke up on social media and wrote: "Unfortunately, it's more than questionable whether I can continue in the TTBL."

The Olympic bronze medalist has been playing for the German cup winner TTC Neu-Ulm since 2022. And even if Ovtcharov deleted his post late in the evening, anything is still possible in this complicated dispute: That perhaps the best-occupied team in Bundesliga history will declare its withdrawal from the top German division on Thursday. Or that the Neu-Ulmer lose their top stars again after just one year, two of whom already played illegally for other clubs abroad in January. In any case, it will soon be before an arbitral tribunal headed by the 257-time national handball goalkeeper Andreas Thiel.

Top stars for the Champions League

This dispute has its origins in an unprecedented transfer coup that the TTC Neu-Ulm announced on Good Friday 2022. The club signed four of the top ten players in the current world rankings in one go: in addition to the German national player Ovtcharov, vice world champion Truls Moregardh (Sweden), fourth in the world rankings Tomokazu Harimoto (Japan) and Lin Yun-ju from Taiwan.

The plan from the start was for the four stars to play in the attractive Champions League and in the German Cup competition, the final tournament of which is held in Neu-Ulm every January. In the Bundesliga, the club primarily uses three young Russian internationals who have been living and training in Germany for many years.

Until recently, this plan worked: Neu-Ulm won the cup final against Borussia Düsseldorf for the first time and only lost in the Champions League last Sunday in the extra time of an epic semi-final second leg against the German record champions.

At the end of January, however, something happened that should not have happened according to the contracts and change periods of the TTBL: Truls Moregardh and Lin Yun-ju played for other clubs in the Swedish and Japanese leagues, although they are still registered in the Bundesliga. And the league imposed a fine of 10,000 euros and a suspension of ten games on both of them - but only valid for the next season.

From when does the ban apply?

This is exactly what the dispute is about: the timing of the punishment. "We clearly admit the violation," said Neu-Ulm President Florian Ebner of the German Press Agency. "Both players knew that. They told us that, too. But it doesn't make sense to me that the ban should only apply next season. I've never heard anything like it in any other sport."

The league officials argue that Moregardh and Lin could have easily changed clubs in January - but within the framework of the change deadlines and thus before the cup final. Leaving later and thereby taking the cup final with you is "a violation with prior demand that undermines our competitive integrity," said TTBL Managing Director Nico Stehle of the "Süddeutsche Zeitung".

The problem for the league is now: will it get through its own court of arbitration with its sentence? The license agreements of the TTBL actually provide for an immediate withdrawal of the license and no game suspension for such a serious violation as that of the two Neu-Ulm players. That was obviously the club's calculation: that Moregardh and Lin are excluded for the rest of a season at most, in which they are no longer needed anyway.

The fact that the very long ban will only apply in the next season poses a major problem for the TTC Neu-Ulm. Because Moregardh and Lin could not be used in the 2024 cup final. "And of course the players say: If I can't assume that I'll play here, then I'll just have to play somewhere else," explained Ebner. The TTBL penalty has so upset the Neu-Ulmer Stars that they - see Ovtcharov - are threatening to leave.

How is the club reacting?

The club management now has until Thursday to consider their next steps. By then, all Bundesliga clubs must submit their license application for the next season.

"We definitely want to continue playing in the Champions League," said Ebner. That was already possible last season and this season with a wildcard from the European association. And in the Bundesliga? "It's open," confirmed the club boss. The Bundesliga is no longer attractive for stars like Ovtcharov or Moregardh because the many game dates collide with international tournaments. "And in the long run we can't play with two different teams in one season," said Ebner.

The reaction of the most famous German player shows how complicated this case is. "It's great for the attractiveness of our sport to have such players in the league. Who knows if they would be here otherwise?" said Timo Boll from Borussia Düsseldorf about the Neu-Ulm project. "But as a league or Bundesliga fan, you want a little more substance and less of a team that's divided into two."