Is it Better to Get Blown Out or to Just Stay Home?

Within the past year there have been a number of lopsided scores in International Team Handball competitions. The English Men’s Junior team got pasted 67-3 by Sweden and the Canadian Men’s and Women’s Teams were blitzed by Brazil and Argentina just this past week at the PATHF Junior Championships.
Such lopsided matches are nothing new and certainly are not restricted to Junior Teams. The Australian Senior Women’s and Men’s programs took a beating at the last World Championships (57-9: Women vs Hungary; 49-16: Men vs Sweden) And just to make sure that no one thinks that I’m neglecting to mention any US embarrassments I will point out a few scores from at the 2001 Men’s World Championships. (41-12 vs Croatia; 45-18 vs Spain) And on an even more personal note, when I played at the 1993 World Championships we played and lost all 6 of our matches by an average of 15 goals.

So, the question that is often asked is, “What’s the point of these massacres?” And the summary judgment is usually along the lines of, “These pathetic teams have no business even being on the same floor as the best in the world.” Or “Too bad, I’m not an American. If I were I could be playing in the World Championships.” Beyond the negative rhetoric, here’s the standard for and against arguments that I have heard:

Arguments against playing these matches:
– The inexperienced team is going to injure the experienced players with some risky play
– The games are not entertaining for spectators
– The difference in skill level is so great that the inexperienced team is going to learn nothing from these encounters

Arguments for playing these matches:
– The inexperienced team is going to learn how to better play the game (i.e. seeing somebody execute a perfect swim move and drop-off pass to the circle is one thing, having it done 1 on 1 against you at full speed is another thing entirely)
– The inexperienced team is going to find out exactly how far behind the more skilled teams they are by virtue of the final score. And they are going to see if they are improving or getting worse from year to year.
– These matches are inclusive in that they make a World Championship something more than a European Championship (with a few extras, like South Korea and Tunisia)

Well, as you can probably tell by how I’ve framed these arguments, I am definitely in the “For Playing” camp. In particular, I think I can build a case against each of the “Against playing” arguments. While they are legitimate arguments they can and are being mitigated.
– Inexperience play leading to injury: A definite concern but this can easily be rectified by a minimal amount of coaching to teach players that they can’t do dangerous things like grabbing a shooting arm from behind. Good players will still risk injury, but every time a player steps on the court they risk injury. Additionally, a game against a weak opponent is often one that won’t count in the standings and allows some top players to not play or see only limited action.
– Games not entertaining: There’s no way around this fact. I know I prefer to see two evenly matched top caliber teams. However, the IHF has done a good job of scheduling and seeding World Championship matches. Yes, there will be some non-entertaining matches, but usually those matches are paired with a good match in a double-header format.
– Difference in skill level is too great: When I played at the World Championships, we took a beating in almost every match. There were, however, stretches when we held our own against the top teams, including only being down by 4 at halftime against Sweden in front of their home crowd. The difference was huge, but we were close enough athletic wise to learn a lot from the experience. But what about teams that are getting blitzed by 40, 50, even 60 goals? Can those players really learn anything from that sort of experience? The answer is still yes, but I would agree that there are diminishing returns as the difference in the teams becomes more pronounced. Still, despite total annihilation, you can’t help but learn something and I bet if you were to ask almost any player who has experienced such a defeat whether they gained anything you are going to get a positive response.

In fact, if the raw athletic ability is there it’s only a matter of time and experience until those teams can close the gap. A case in point is the Swedish women’s hockey team upset of the highly favored USA Women’s team at the Torino Olympics. The Swedish players and coaches made the point repeatedly that they never would have been able to improve without the Canadians and Americans being willing to play them when they were not a competitive team. If some of the less experienced teams can keep their teams together long enough (and add some European club experiences for their top players) you’ll eventually see the same thing happen in Handball. Of course, one could argue that it’s already happened in the case of the Tunisia Men and Brazilian Women. The jury is still out and we will see what happens in 2007

One thought on “Is it Better to Get Blown Out or to Just Stay Home?

  1. If they only include the "best" teams in the World Championships [or Olympics] it then becomes another European Championship. Just because the strong teams are concentrated there does not mean there should not be representatives from other areas of the world. If basketball had excluded all the weak countries from participating in Olympics and World Championship all those years that the USA dominated, would we have the competitive level we see now? Heck, the ol' USA can't win a major competition now, but tell that to anyone back in the '50s, '60s, or '70s! Back then it should have been USA White vs USA Blue vs USA Red if competiveness was the only criteria! The more exposure Handball gets worldwide, the more important it becomes, the better chance America will wake up and really try to become competitive.

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