Mexico Drops Out of Women’s NorCa Championship

norca-2017

Looks like this nifty logo needs to be updated.

Qualification for the Pan American Championships just got a little easier for Team USA and other competitors participating in the North American and Caribbean (NorCa) Championships in March.  This is because, according to the Mundo Handball website Mexico is reportedly dropping out of the tournament leaving only four nations (Puerto Rico, USA, Greenland and the Dominican Republic) competing for three qualification spots.

Mundo Handball did not give a reason for Mexico’s withdrawal, but did speculate that some falling dominoes may result in Mexico qualifying for final tournament anyway as a sort of wild card.  This is because Cuba, which has already qualified for the final tournament by virtue of their 2nd place finish in 2015 may choose not to participate.  Mexico, which finished 8th in 2015 could then be in line to take Cuba’s spot assuming that places 1st through 7th have already qualified.

The NorCa is scheduled for March 30 – April 3 in Puerto Rico.  The four teams will play a round robin and then will be seeded for semifinals and finals.  The top 3 teams will qualify for the Pan American Championships which will take place in Toronto from 16 – 25 June.  The top 3 teams at that tournament will then qualify for the World Championships in Germany from 1 – 17 December

NorCa Tournament Schedule: Link

 

 

Athlete Minded Interviews USA National Team Athletes     

Sarah Gascon, Jence Rhoads and Ford Dyke discuss how they got introduced to handball

Sarah Gascon, Jence Rhoads and Ford Dyke discuss how they got introduced to handball

The Athlete Minded Podcast, hosted by Tyson Hartnett, recently interviewed Women’s National Team members Sarah Gascon and Jence Rhodes and Men’s National Team member Ford Dyke.  Each of the interviews in comic book parlance tells their origin story.  What sports they played when they were young and how they eventually transitioned into handball.

Athlete Minded Website:  Link

Sarah Gascon Interview:  Link

Jence Rhoads Interview:  Link

Ford Dyke Interview:  Link

 

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but that success occurred when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil. Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher? Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil.
Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher?
Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

 

This is part of a series of commentaries which seeks to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.  In the last segment I used some personal experience to illustrate how a professional athlete can make short work of an amateur.  While relevant this experience still doesn’t tell the whole story because it happened nearly 24 years ago when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”.  The reality is that the pros now populating the world’s best national teams today are better athletes, better trained and even better equipped.  In other words, amateurs stand no chance whatsoever.

I’ve briefly highlighted on a number of occasions that the game of handball is more “professionalized” today, but I‘ve never offered a full explanation as to why this so.  I think most folks who’ve been around awhile and follow today’s game will acknowledge this.  But, it’s a little more complicated to come up with data that supports this notion.  It’s a simple truism that it’s pretty challenging to compare different eras.  Tactics change, rules change, training regimens change, the overall talent pool changes, etc., etc.  All those changes can make it pretty difficult to compare the teams of today to the teams of yesteryear.

Add in the biases one might have for either the good old days or the modern era and it can get even more complicated, heck maybe impossible for any definitive analysis.

A Basketball – Handball Comparison

All those caveats aside, what has transpired at the professional club and international team levels in the sport of basketball the past 40 years or so provides by proxy a window as to how handball has changed as well.

Let me be upfront:  It’s not a perfect comparison.  The sports have a number of similarities, but also some significant differences.  Still, if one were to compare major and even not so major team sports you’ll be hard pressed to find any 2 other sports with so many similarities.  Both are indoor court games that are generally played by tall and physical athletes.  The pacing of the games are also similar with an offense to defense transition and fast breaks.

In Europe, the sports are very similarly organized at the club and professional level.  In some countries basketball reigns supreme (Italy and Spain). In other countries handball takes precedence (Scandinavia).  And, in some (France, Germany) the sports have similar popularity.  We could argue about what metrics to use to determine primacy, but that’s not the point for this article.  No, my point here is to simply point out how the organization and structure for the two sports is remarkably similar in Europe.

Outside of Europe, though, there is no parity between the two sports. And, in the U.S. the difference in popularity, structure and organization is dramatic.  Basketball in the U.S. has a level of popularity and organization that approaches soccer in Europe.  While handball is mostly an unknown sport in the U.S.  The difference could not be greater.

Historical U.S. Basketball Performance

And, because basketball is treated in the U.S. roughly the way the rest of the world treats soccer, the U.S. has had unparalleled success on the world stage. Arguably, no nation has dominated a team sport the way the U.S. has dominated the sport of basketball.  There are some reasons for this.  For one, we invented the game.  Two, we place way more emphasis on the sport.   And, three, the USA is a huge country and when you couple that with the emphasis placed on the sport it creates an enormous talent pool of players.  The result is a slew of gold medals and a general consensus that anything other than first for an American team at the Olympics is a failure.  Why, even an embarrassment.

And, for sure there’s been some embarrassment over the years.  Here’s a condensed history of USA Basketball at the Olympics.

1936 – 1984 Olympics:  U.S. takes Gold medal at every Olympics except 1972 (controversial loss to the Soviet Union) and in 1980 (U.S. boycotted) U.S. teams consisted of college athletes, age 22 or younger, who would first come together as a team for the very first time a few weeks before the Olympics.  Why we could have sent 10 teams and probably taken spots 1 to 10, especially early on.

1988 Olympics: Soviets beat U.S. in semifinal.  Fair and square this time.

1992 – 2000 Olympics: U.S. starts sending NBA athletes to the Olympics.  Take that rest of world.  You might be able to beat a bunch of college kids, but you’ve got zero chance against our pros.

2004 Olympics: Team USA loses 3 games on the way to a bronze medal.

2008 – 2016 Olympics:  3 straight gold medals. USA Basketball revamps its national team planning.  More effort is placed on ensuring top pros and key role players participate.  Gone are the days of the U.S. team convening a few weeks before the Olympics.  Summer training camps are conducted each year and rosters now have a level of continuity.

Of course, this is just Olympic basketball history.  That’s all we Americans really care about anyway when it comes to International basketball.  But, the U.S. has been sending teams to the Basketball World Championships every time it’s been played since 1950.   Never pros until recently and at times USA basketball just sent whatever players they could find.  Check out this link for a history of the eclectic teams that were sent over the years:  Link

Trivia Question Answers and Why this is all Relevant to Handball

Now back to the photo.  The 1978 team was composed mostly of, Athletes in Action, a team of former college athletes that used basketball as a platform for Christian Ministry.  “Mostly composed” as the lone holdout was future 1984 Handball Olympian, Tom Schneeberger.  Scheeberger is one of USA Handball’s all-time greats, easily one of the top ten players to ever wear a USA uniform.  Also, an outstanding college basketball player at Air Force where he was a two time MVP and is 11th on the all-time scoring list: Link

This 1978 team was able to place 5th in the tournament, which was better than the worst ever ranking by a USA Team at the 2002 Men’s World Championships in Indiana.  That team featured an NBA roster, but lacked stars and could finish no better than 6th.   What the heck happened in those 24 intervening years?

So, here’s the answer and a parallel comparison with handball.

With, basketball, the U.S. could for many years win Olympic Gold with its best college athletes and could field a top 5 World Championship team with some decent former college players that weren’t good enough for the NBA.

With handball (in roughly the same time period), the U.S. could field respectable teams with athletes similar to the ones used to field those World Championship basketball teams.  (Or in the case of Schneeberger, the actual same athlete)  The Handball National Teams that were put together with only a few years of training in a sport that was entirely brand new to them.   Despite this enormous handicap solid teams were put together. Teams good enough to even take top European sides down to the wire at the 1984 Olympics.

From the context of today, some might ask how that was even possible.  Here are some top level reasons why the U.S. achieved a measure of respectability:

  • With few options outside of the U.S. Professional leagues (e.g. NBA) a sizable talent pool of athletes was available to choose from. In terms of raw physical ability the U.S. was rarely outmatched and often had an advantage.
  • Many of the athletes on the U.S. teams had played college sports which although amateur were more organized and professional than many club sports in Europe. Handball was new to these athletes, but they were experienced athletes used to playing on the big stage.
  • The residency programs while not perfect provided a quality training program where athletes could progress rather quickly.

But, the “good times” didn’t continue to roll for either USA Basketball or USA Team Handball.  With basketball, the wakeup call was the embarrassing 2002 WC on home soil.  USA Basketball learned they could just send any pros with little preparation.  It took 6 years to right the ship and since the 2008 Olympics the U.S. hasn’t lost an international match since.

Today, the U.S. is clearly on top of the basketball world again, but the domination isn’t as overwhelming as it used to be.  What happened? Well, in simple terms the rest of the world caught up.  The U.S. can no longer just put any 5 players on the court and expect to win.  Coaching, training, tactics, player skills, and the level of play in European pro leagues have all improved.  The U.S. still has the edge with its enormous talent pool, but the gap is not so huge anymore.  And, the number of foreigners now playing in the NBA is a stark indicator of that reality.

And, why is this all relevant to USA Team Handball?  Well, just as European basketball has improved dramatically, European Handball has done the same.  Handball and basketball are different sports, but the organization, training and professionalism have all marched forward at roughly the same level.  Good pro sports teams learn about what works in other sports and apply it to their sports.  Club teams like Barcelona even are structured with multiple sport disciplines all under one roof.

There’s very little doubt in my mind that if you took the top 16 International teams of 2016 and had them face off against the top 16 International teams of 1984 that you would have a clean sweep 16-0 victory for the 2016 teams.  And, this is true for either basketball or handball.

USA Team Handball’s Slow Adaption to the Changing Reality

USA Team Handball has been slow to adapt to this changing reality.  Heck, it’s pretty clear to me that most key decision makers are unaware that the reality has changed.  That the competition isn’t about at the same level or maybe a bit better, but that is a whole lot better than it was before.

To a certain extent it’s understandable.  Since the 1996 Olympics funding for USA Team Handball has taken a dramatic nosedive.  And, with that drop in funding the U.S. could no longer afford to train athletes with a quality residency program.  The U.S. wasn’t able to recruit and train the same types of athletes and this has been assessed as the primary cause for our dip in performance.

For sure the drop in funding didn’t help, but that shortcoming has obscured many from fully recognizing the steady improvement in our competition.  Many think that the problem of uncompetitive national teams can be solved by bringing back a residency program.  And, that if we improve upon the residency program model we could even do better than has been done in the past.

This, however, is simply wishful thinking that does not recognize the improvement in our competition, both in Europe and in Pan America.  The gap that could at one time be overcome with a superior talent pool and quality training is now a chasm.  The reality is that even if we could properly fund a residency program it couldn’t create a national team that could beat the top teams of today any more than USA basketball could still win Olympic Gold with a bunch of college kids.

This concludes my assessment of the premise that we should use a residency program model because it got us the best results in the past.  In the next installment I switch gears to take a closer look at the platform a residency program can provide to build sponsorship and grass roots development.

Podcast: Flensburg-Kiel (2nd half)

Flensburg hosts derby rival Kiel in battle for first place in the German Bundesliga

Flensburg hosts derby rival Kiel in battle for first place in the German Bundesliga

2nd half topic:  I discuss my current frustration with the lack of handball TV viewing opportunities in the U.S and why the new handball related reality show could lead to a major network in the U.S. broadcasting handball

Synch the video with the audio: I give a running countdown starting at 52:18 on the ehfTV clock in the lower left hand corner.

Video: Link

Podcast: Flensburg – Kiel (1st Half)

Flensburg hosts derby rival Kiel in battle for first place in the German Bundesliga

Flensburg hosts derby rival Kiel in a battle for first place in the German Bundesliga

The super bowl is over and it’s time to get your sport fix with a little handball.  What better way to do that than by watching German Bundesliga leader, Flensburg, host arch rival and 2nd place Kiel in a battle for first place.  The match is available “on demand” at ehfTV and I’ve done some “casual commentary” that you can listen to while you watch the match.  Casual in that sometimes I call the action and at other times I have a running conversation with myself on different topics.

In the first half I explain why I think the Bundesliga is the best handball league in the world and how I became a fan of Flensburg.

Synch the video with the audio:  I give a running countdown starting at 00:35 on the ehfTV clock in the lower left hand corner.

Video: Link

 

Team Handball Reality TV Show in Development

HBO's Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps.  Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

HBO’s Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps. Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

The latest USA Team Handball Board of Director’s Meeting Minutes from December 12 of last year include a short paragraph regarding a reality TV show concept centered around team handball.  Below is the text of the minutes:

Reality Concept – Bob (Djokovich) reviewed his attached document which goes back 20 months when the organization was approached by directors about a Reality Show.  The goal is to find ex-Pro and D1 athletes who learn the sport, win the Pan Am Games and then go on to do well at the Olympics.  The directors contacted USATH again six months ago and NBC also approached us about a similar process.  Since Rio, we have connected the producers and have pitched to NBC Execs and have a soft go.  We are currently looking for sponsors with the goal of starting to shoot the show in the February/March timeframe.  They want to attend our current events.  The Board received the original slides, which now have been updated and capture more of the intent.  When IHF President, Hassan Moustafa was given a preview of the slide deck on the project, he wanted the directors to come to Paris to see the finals of the Men’s World Championships in late January in Paris at his expense.  We are moving cautiously to make this happen and the USOC is aware of this project.

An NBC Executive Producer did in fact attend the recent World Championships and efforts are ongoing to get formal NBC approval to proceed.  The timeline, however, has been moved back to starting this summer at the earliest.  And, as with most TV projects, a number of steps are involved between the development of a concept and it’s airing on TV.  But, make no mistake:  This is a real effort with a solid chance of eventually making it on TV.

Commentary:  I, for one, am skeptical as to whether this show could accomplish the stated goals of winning the PANAM Games and qualifying for the 2024 Olympics.  Brazil, in particular, would be a really tough foe to beat for a bunch of handball newbies, even if they are very athletically gifted.  That being said this reality show would surely be very entertaining to watch.  If they get some good athletes they might not be able to beat Brazil, but given some solid training for a month or two they could beat every club team in the U.S. and probably our current national team.  It would depend on the athletes participating and it would depend on how seriously they take their training.

Setting aside the practicality of the show’s premise the real story is the potential impact the show could have in terms of promotional value.  A television show about team handball in prime time on a major TV network!  We get excited every four years during the Olympics when handball is discovered by thousands of people on secondary TV channels at odd hours of the day.  This exposure would dwarf that Olympic exposure and if the show is a success ratings wise it could trigger a grass roots explosion.

USA Women Hold Training Camp in France

USA Women with French club, Grand Poiters 86

USA Women with French club, Grand Poiters 86

The USA Women recently held a training camp in France in preparation for this spring’s North American and Caribbean Championships.  The camp as based in Poiters, France where USA Women’s coach, Christian Latulippe coaches Grand Poiters 86 men’s team.  The attendees were a mix of veterans, newcomers, U.S. based players and European based players.

According to various social media and news reports the squad played four matches against club teams.

24 January; USA 32, Grand Poiters 86, 21 (Grand Poiters 86 has an 8-1-0 record and is the 1st place team in Pool 2 of N3F)

26 January; USA 28, Moncoutant 29 (Moncoutant has a 5-3-1 record and is 4th place in Pool 2 of N2F)

27 January; USA 19, HBC Celle-sur-Belles 39 (Cell-sur-Belle has a 0-9-1 record and is in last place in the LFH, France’s top pro league)

28 January; USA 20, Stella St Maur 32 (Stella St Maur has a 1-8-0 record and is in last place in D2F)

Short Tutorial on the French Club System Hierarchy

For some context on the level of competition Team USA faced here’s a short tutorial on the somewhat confusing French Club system hierarchy.  There are five nationwide levels of competition

  • Ligue Feminine de Handball (LFH): France’s top professional league consisting of 11 clubs
  • Pro 2: France’s 2nd professional league consisting of 12 clubs
  • NF1: 36 clubs playing in 3 pools
  • NF2: 48 clubs playing in 4 pools
  • NF3: 96 clubs playing in 8 pools

French Club Standings: Link

Clubs move up and down this hierarchical pyramid each season using a standard European promotion/relegation system.  In principle, this means that most of the clubs at each level are superior to the clubs below them.

Commentary:  One shouldn’t read too much into these lackluster results.  The USA women haven’t had any significant competition since the 2015 Pan American Championships and the majority of their players are no longer based in Auburn, so they haven’t even practiced/scrimmaged together in a long time.  The level of competition at NORCA is also probably significantly lower than the 2 pro teams that they faced.  That being said securing 1 of the 3 spots for this summer’s Pan American Championships won’t be a walk in the park.  Hosts Puerto Rico, Mexico, Greenland and the Dominican Republic all field sides that have a realistic chance of competing for the title.

Podcast:  World Championships Reflections with ehfTV’s Tom O’Brannigan

ehfTV's Tom O'Brannigan

ehfTV’s Tom O’Brannigan

ehfTV’s Tom O’Brannigan joins the podcast to share some of his thoughts on the IHF Men’s World Championships Final Four.  We discuss France’s 31-25 defeat of Slovenia and tonight’s Norway – Croatia semifinal matchup.

Along the way we discuss a few tangents to include handball twitter, the all-Irish surname handball team (Norway’s O’Sullivan is a member), handball TV coverage around the world and American Football.  American Football?

Tom O’Brannigan Twitter: Link
Team Handball News Twitter: Link

ehfTV: Link

Tom will be back behind the mic when IFK Kristianstad hosts Rhein-Neckar Lowen in the EHF Champions League Match of the Week (MOTW) on Sunday, February 19th : Link

 

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

Preview of the 2017 Handball WC Semifinals:  A French Coronation?

World Championships Final Four:  A French Coronation in Paris?

World Championships Final Four: A French Coronation in Paris?

The Perils of Prediction

Well, let’s just say the Round of 16 and quarterfinals did not go as I expected.  In particular, Denmark’s and Germany’s departure at the hands of Hungary and Qatar busted my bracket pretty badly.  Qatar relied heavily on Capote and Saric and got just enough support from their supporting cast to send and a disorganized German attack packing.  Hungary got Nagy back, but it was the Dane’s lackluster performance was more to blame for their departure.  Finally, Spain survived a scare from Brazil only to be done in by a more determined Croatian squad.  So, of my final 4 only France (no big surprise) has survived.

All told, if one looks at the opening odds it’s a surprising final four. Here are those odds for the 4 remaining teams to win the championship and finish in the top 3

France: 1 to 1; 1 to 5
Croatia: 12 to 1; 9 to 4
Slovenia: 30 to 1; 11 to 2
Norway: 40 to 1; 8 to 1

A French Coronation?

Now, here’s the updated odds to win it all:

France: 5 to 12
Croatia: 5.5 to 1
Slovenia: 12 to 1
Norway: 4.5 to 1

In simple terms, or if you prefer percentages (like the website fivethirtyeight.com calculates) France should win this tournament about 70% of the time.  So, France is clearly a pretty big favorite.  That being said, here’s a case for each of the other sides to knock out France.

Slovenia lacks star power, but plays very well collectively. The players know their roles and they don’t try to do too much individually.  Several of the players have either played or are currently playing professionally in France.  They know the French players, know that man for man the French are better, but they also know their limitations.  If Slovenia can keep France from running off one of their typical 5 goal scoring blitzes, Slovenia can win a close game in the closing minutes through smart play.  The key, though, will be keeping in contact and not letting the game get out of hand.

Norway, has been the biggest surprise of the tourney.  Aside from rising start, Sandor Sagosen (headed to Paris SG next season) it’s a collection of no-name players, most of whom play in the Danish league.  Peter Bruun at Stregspiller.com gives much of the credit for the team’s performance to their coach, Chrisitian Berge: Link.  I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.  Much like Slovenia, Norway plays very well together collectively.  I’m not sure if they have the star power, but I think they can beat Croatia.

Croatia’s chances I think begin and end with the play of Domagoj Duvnak.  The 28 year old Kiel Centerback is the key linchpin in the Croatian attack.  If he plays well, he can shepherd a Croatian side that’s a bit thin in depth and reportedly ailing.  If he plays outworldly maybe they can spring an upset against France in the final.

Could France Beat France?

Ultimately, I think the only team that can beat France, is France themselves.  Clearly they are the best team in the tournament.  None of the other teams can even begin to match their depth at each position.  But, then again France hasn’t been fully tested yet.  Their depth is not as great as it used to be and they’ve got a new coach.  If a game comes down to the wire it’s at least conceivable that the pressure of being the host and expectations could do them in.

Conceivable, but I would have bet on a team like Denmark or Germany as being the side capable of keeping the match close for such a possibility.  And, those sides got bounced in the Round of 16.  My thinking now is that France’s superiority will show its face early on in both the semi and final and result in less than exciting games to watch.  But, if my past predictions are any guide we could be looking at some significantly different outcomes. I guess that’s why games are played on the court, and not on paper.

Preview of the 2017 World Championships Knockout Tourney   

France will be playing their next two matches in Lille. Why not Paris? Well the Stade Pierre-Mauroy can sit 27,000. Should be a new attendance record.

France will be playing their next two matches in Lille. Why not Paris? Well the Stade Pierre-Mauroy can sit 27,000. Should be a new attendance record.

Well, Group Play is over and it’s largely confirmed what I, and others, expected to happen.  There are 4 strong contenders (France, Denmark, Spain and Germany) for the title and they each managed to emerge through Group play unscathed with perfect 5-0 records.  Heck, they only broke a sweat in a couple of matches.  But, now the real competition begins and a 5-0 record means nothing.  One loss against a hot goalie and your tournament is done.

With 16 teams left one can look at the tournament now like a version of the NCAA sweet 16 with 4 regionals taking place with 4 teams each vying for a spot in the final 4 in Paris.  Here’s a breakdown of the four regionals:

Montpellier Regional

Spain (B1) vs Brazil (A4)
Croatia (C2) vs Egypt (D3)

Spain is the heavy favorite here.  Brazil has shown promise at times and could play with Spain for a bit, but inevitably they lose consistency for a spell and find themselves down 4 or 5.  Egypt has the same problem, but will have a better chance against a Croatian side that lacks depth.  Regardless, it’s hard to see Spain not advancing to the Final Four.

Albertville Regional

Denmark (D1) vs Hungary (C4)
Norway (A2) vs Macedonia (B3)

Denmark should emerge from this regional without too much trouble.  Denmark had been looking forward to a freebie match vs Chile, but Hungary’s loss to Belarus means a significantly tougher round of 16 opponent.  Still, Hungary lacks depth and scoring punch from 9 meters with Nagy out.  Macedonia has much the same problem with too much reliance on Lazarov.

Lille Regional

France (A1) vs Iceland (B4)
Sweden (D2) vs Belarus (C3)

Both France and Sweden should coast to easy victories here.  Sweden, in particular, received a gift with Belarus’s upset of Hungary giving them an easier match in the round of 16.  Hard to see a side that lost to Chile beating Sweden in a knockout game.  A really thin Icelandic side without Palmarsson has no chance against France.  It’s also hard to see Sweden knocking off the hosts in a quarterfinal.  Any upset would hinge on an epic performance by Palicka and/or Applegren in goal, plus an uncharacteristically poor performance by Omeyer.  Something I wouldn’t bet on.

Paris Regional

Germany (C1) vs Qatar (D4)
Slovenia (B2) vs Russia (A3)

Germany should have little trouble dispatching Qatar.  Saric can make up for a lot of defensive mistakes, but there’s simply not enough depth in the Qatari squad.  Slovenia should have little trouble with an inconsistent Russian side.  In a potential Germany-Slovenia match I would expect Germany’s defense to wear down Slovenia’s attack.

Preview and Odds for the 2017 Men’s World Championship

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world's dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I'm predicting they'll come up short.

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world’s dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I’m predicting they’ll come up short.

The 2017 Men’s World Championships starts this Wednesday with hosts France taking on Brazil in the opening match.  Here is some analysis and odds courtesy of the online betting site bet365.com: Link 

Odds to win the championship and odds to finish in the top 3

The Usual Suspects  
France                  1/1         1/5
Denmark             4/1         13/20
Spain                    6.5/1      6/5
Germany              8/1         8/5
Croatia                 12/1       9/4

These 5 sides are strong contenders for the title.  As the host France is an even money favorite and at 1/5 to medal they are a virtual lock to make the semifinals.  France would likely be the favorite if the championships were being staged in another country, but it certainly wouldn’t be as overwhelming.  Personally, I think France is the most vulnerable they’ve been in years.  They still are the best side, but they aren’t as deep as they used to be and the old guard is starting to show signs of age.  Perhaps newer players like Mahe and Remili will step up, but that remains to be seen.  And, this side will be under pressure with new coaches (Dinart and Gille) and the expectation that nothing other than gold will suffice.  Denmark, with an Olympic Gold Medal in its possession has the confidence to know that they can beat France as do Spain and Germany.

The Other Guys
Slovenia               30/1       11/2
Norway                40/1       8/1
Qatar                    40/1       8/1
Sweden                40/1       8/1
Hungary               60/1       11/1
Poland                  60/1       11/1
Russia                   60/1       11/1
Iceland                 70/1       13/1

These 8 sides are solid picks to make the round of 16, but making it to the semifinals could probably be considered a solid accomplishment for these 8 teams.

The Outsiders
Brazil                    200/1     30/1
Egypt                    250/1     40/1
Macedonia          250/1     40/1
Argentina            500/1     100/1
Belarus                500/1     100/1
Tunisia                 500/1     100/1
Japan                    1000/1  200/1

These 7 sides will  be looking to make the round of 16.  Advancing to the quarters would hinge on a major upset.  Making the semifinals would be a major achievement.

The Out-Outsiders
Angola                  2000/1  500/1
Bahrain                2000/1  500/1
Chile                     2000/1  500/1
Saudi Arabia       2000/1  500/1

These 4 sides have probably already booked their transportation to Brest and the President’s Cup.

Here a closer look at the odds (in parentheses) to win each group and my prediction as to the Final Standings

Group A
1) France (1/10)
2) Norway (8/1)
3) Brazil (18/1)
4) Poland (25/1)
5) Russia (14/1)
6) Japan (100/1)

I think Brazil will surprise here, taking advantage of a new look Polish roster and an inconsistent Russian team.  They also played well at the Olympics and the past few World Championships.

Group B
1) Spain (2/9)
2) Slovenia (7/2)
3) Tunisia (30/1)
4) Macedonia (20/1)
5) Iceland (15/1)
6) Angola (100/1)

Wael Jallouz and Tunisia will take advantage of the home crowd.  Expect more than a few Tunisian and French citizens of Tunisian descent in attendance.  Jallouz has shown at Barca how he can take over a game.  Expect him to do just that against Macedonia and Iceland.   Iceland might raise a cup at the WC, but minus Aron Palmarsson it may well be the President’s Cup.

Group C
1) Germany (19/20)
2) Croatia (21/20)
3) Hungary (13/2)
4) Belarus (50/1)
5) Chile (300/1)
6) Saudi Arabia (300/1)

I think this Group will simply follow the oddsmaker’s ranking.  Germany’s hard nosed defense will prevail over Croatia and Hungary.  Chile has an outside shot at upsetting Belarus for a round of 16 opportunity.

Group D
1) Denmark (1/7)
2) Sweden (7/1)
3) Egypt (30/1)
4) Argentina (50/1)
5) Qatar (7/1)
6) Bahrain (300/1)

Can Qatar with one of the world’s best coaches and goalkeepers continue their successful runs in international competition?  No, not with their depleted roster of court players.  Egypt and Argentina will pip Qatar and send them to the President’s Cup.

Projecting the Semifinals and Champion

A lot of handball will be played over the next 10 days so predictions at this point are real hazardous.  Still I’ll go out on a limb and project that France will come up short in it’s quest for a 5th title.  Followers of this website will note that this is quite a departure for me as I have consistently picked France to win every title for the past 10 years or so.  Not that was exceedingly brave.  As I declared over and over, if you have the best GK (Omeyer), best court player (Karabatic) and best defender (Dinart) you should win.  Throw in Narcisse, Fernandez and Abalo as a supporting cast and it was an embarrassment of riches.  But, father time is starting to kick in.  Dinart is now coach, Omeyer is 40 and Karabatic at 32 is starting to seem more human on the court.  Why Hansen and Duvnjak might even be better now.  Maybe the new supporting cast will step up, but I’ve got my doubts.  Maybe the home court advantage will give the old guard one more title, but again I’ve got my doubts.

Right now I’ll project Germany giving coach Sigurdsson a parting gift victory over France in the semifinals and Denmark knocking off Spain in the other. Then Denmark topping Germany in the Final.

USA’s Nico Mukendi Training with Spain’s #2 Club, Naturhouse La Rioja

Team USA's, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi is currently training in Spain with the professional club, Naturhouse La Rioja.  Naturhouse La Rioja, located in Logrono, is currently in 3rd place in Spain’s top professional league, the Liga Asobal and for the past few years has been considered the #2 club in Spain, behind perennial powerhouse FC Barcelona. La Rioja is also in 2nd place in Group C of the Champions League (Group’s C/D are a notch below the elite pro squads in Groups A and B.)

Mukendi, age 23, is a native of Hillsborough, NJ and has been with the Residency Program in Auburn since it was established in 2013.  He was identified in 2012 after he broke the record on a performance test conducted by Athletic Standard.  Since joining the program he has participated in several junior and senior national team competitions.  A back court player, he will be practicing with La Rioja informally for 3 days to help assess his development as a player.

Commentary:  This is a great development for USA Team Handball and hopefully he is just the first in a steady stream of players heading to Europe to be evaluated by top clubs.  More importantly, he is one of the few athletes that have joined the Residency Program straight out of high school.  This is important as it takes several years of training to develop technical handball skills and pro clubs are less interested in further developing athletes in their mid to late 20s.  More athletes with his combination of age/athletic ability are needed if the Residency Programs are ever to be successful.

Marca.com article (in Spanish): Link

Athletic Standard video on Mukendi: Link

Commentary on Handball Training Academies in Europe:  Link  (This commentary from 2014 includes a fake news story about Mukendi signing a professional contract in Denmark.)

Podcast:  Netherlands Women’s Handball: How their 10 Year Development Plan Has Vaulted them in to the World’s Elite

How has the Netherlands moved to the top of the pyramid in Women's Handball? By building a pyramid in the Netherlands first.

How has the Netherlands moved to the top of the pyramid in Women’s Handball? By building a pyramid in the Netherlands first.

It wasn’t too long ago that Netherlands Women’s Handball could diplomatically be described as mediocre.  Now thanks to their 5-1 record in preliminary and main round play they are in the semifinals of the European Championships.  Their 3rd consecutive semifinals in a major competition (2015 WC, 2016 Olympics)

How has this remarkable turnaround been accomplished?

To find out I spoke with Netherlands Handball Technical Director, Sjors Rottger and National Team player Lois Abbingh.  Rottger describes the 10 year plan that has been implemented to identify athletes at younger ages and then provide them with the training they need to eventually sign professional contracts by age 19 to 21.  Abbingh reflects on her time at the Handball Academy in Arnhem and how it prepared her for international play and a pro career.

The Netherlands takes on Denmark tomorrow (Friday, 16 December) at 1815 (CET), 1215 (U.S. East Coast) and the match can be seen live on ehftv.com.  The Gold and Bronze medal matches will be on Sunday, also on ehftv.

Netherlands Handball Vision: Link

Lois Abbingh Official Website: Link

 

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