In the midst of the Women’s World Championships this past December a pretty significant Liga Asobal Men’s club match was played in Guadalajara, Spain where the host team managed a 26-26 draw against, Barcelona, one of the best club teams in the world.
Why was that draw significant? Well, because not since May 18, 2013, when they lost to Naturhouse La Riolla, 33-31 had Barcelona failed to win a match in Spain’s top competition. A staggering 133 straight victories and 4 straight undefeated 30-0-0 seasons from 2013 to 2017. Back in 2013, I wrote a commentary on how the financial crisis in 2008 had set in motion the tumbling of what was once the World’s 2nd best league to merely an afterthought competition. Essentially, Barca and everybody else.
Still, 133 straight victories? No upsets along the way? This is not simply a matter of amateurs vs pros. The other teams in the league aren’t what they once were, but they are sides still mostly, if not entirely, composed of professional athletes. Granollers and Leon have had decent teams the past few years. Perhaps if you ranked every single club in Europe, they’d be somewhere in the top 30. Top 50, for sure. They’ve each had 8 shots at taking Barca down. Plus, the home court advantage for half those games. Crazy things can happen with “home cookin” if you know what I mean. I don’t care how much better the opposition is.
One couldn’t imagine such a string of victories in American professional sports. There’s just way more parity even if there have been some pretty dominant teams over the years like the present day Golden State Warriors.
Just how lacking in parity is the Liga Asobal? Well, I would ascertain, that Barcelona has the league’s best player at every position. Probably, the 2 best players at every position. Heck, there might not be another athlete on all the other teams combined who could find a spot on their roster. OK, that might be a stretch, but for sure nobody playing on any of the other teams would start for Barcelona. And, not only are the players better at every position they are significantly better. There’s a huge gap in talent.
Still, 133 straight victories?
Handball is Just Not the Sport for the Big Shock Upset
But, then again maybe 133 straight wins isn’t such a shocker. When you’re looking for the really big upset in sports there are several factors that come into play.
- How hard is it to score? Games with a lot of scoring are less prone to upsets because the odds dictate that the better team is going to get its points and the weaker team will be faced with the prospect of matching and scoring more. But, if the the prospect of scoring is challenging even for a great team it open the door to the possibility of a huge upset by even totally outmanned opposition. And, no other sport demonstrates this as ably as soccer where a game can be won, 1-0. Entirely amateur sides have knocked off dramatically superior opposition in such games over the years. More often than not the top side wins 5-0, but every once in a while a lucky goal goes in off a corner kick and the dramatically inferior side puts 11 players in the box and prays the pro side can’t find the back of the net.
- How many opportunities are there to score? This essentially relates to the variability in outcomes over time. The longer the game, the more chances to score, the more likely it is the better team will eventually come out on top. It’s just statistics really. For any 5 minutes in a 60 minute game, the weaker team might outperform the stronger team. A team will miss a shot, but if they get to keep shooting, it’s only a matter of time before talent wins out. But, if there are fewer opportunities or it’s a game of shorter duration then the upset becomes more possible. There are a couple of sports that demonstrate this well. One is Rugby 7s where a minor rugby nation like the U.S. can knock off New Zealand without causing much of a real surprise in this 14 minute compact game. Whereas a USA Rugby 15s victory over New Zealand would be epic. Another game: Beach Handball where a USA victory over a top team would be a minor surprise, but the same win over a European team in court handball would again be epic.
- How much difference can one player’s great performance make? In some sports an incredibly great game by one athlete can make all the difference. A great pitcher in baseball can throw a no-hitter. A basketball player can shoot out the lights from 3 point land. The closest thing to something similar happening in handball is a commanding goalie performance. And, I’ve seen it happen, on occasion, but in reality such a performance might realistically mean chopping the talent gap 4-5 goals.
Handball is a game where 2 of these 3 factors always work against the dramatically weaker team. And, even the 3rd possibility of a great individual performance is muted somewhat in its effectiveness. Upsets do happen in handball. But, those upsets typically occur in matches where the talent gap between the two sides is actually somewhat modest. Think, the French women’s recent upset of Norway. There was a gap in talent, but not a chasm and goalie play/defense overcame it. But, the bigger the gap widens in terms of talent the chances of a shock upset increase dramatically, probably exponentially.
Unwittingly, a Test Case for Other Handball Odds Assessments
I’ve written a couple of commentaries (Link 1, Link 2) where I’ve tried to critically assess the odds of the U.S. National Teams to qualify for the Olympics and the World Championships. As, I did my assessment I struggled a bit to try and quantify the differences between long shots, big long shots and really, really long shots. It’s a theoretical contemplation for sure to entertain the differences between 5-1, 10-1, 50-1, 100-1, 250-1, etc. And, the USA Women are never going to play Brazil a thousand times to get some good data that might back up assertions on just how long are the odds for a long shot upset.
But, Barcelona’s 133 straight victory run over the past four years probably serves as a pretty good approximation. Heck, one could argue that the gap in talent between Barcelona and the typical also run Liga Asobal team is less than the gap that exists between the U.S. and Brazil Women. Much like the gap I described above I don’t think a single American would make the Brazilian roster. The Brazilian roster is composed mostly of athletes playing on tier 1 teams in Europe. The U.S. has maybe a couple of players that with some more competitive experience could possibly make the roster of a tier 2 side in Europe, but the bulk of the roster, while hard working is tier 3 at best. Even with Brazil’s disappointing World Championship performance there is still a massive talent gap. We could argue as to whether the possibility of an upset is a 100-1, 250-1 or 500-1 proposition, but there should be little doubt that it’s a big number.
And, the double whammy the U.S. Men face in having to beat 2 significantly superior sides, Brazil and Argentina is aptly displayed. Seriously, what do you think the chances are of Barcelona losing 2 games, back to back in the Liga Asobal anytime soon? As, I previously highlighted needing 2 upsets means a really big number. Maybe the 2,500 to 1, is even right on the money
I wish this was all simply a total nonsense speculative assessment. I wish the U.S. had a realistic shot at Olympic qualification. I also wish we would stop kidding ourselves and start thinking long and hard about how to transform the sport of handball in this country. To take advantage of the 10 years we’ve been given leading up to the 2028 Olympics to do things right. I’m beginning to think the odds of that happening, though, maybe isn’t much better than our 2020 Olympic Qualification prospects. Call me Don Quixote if you will, but, I’ll keep advocating and asking the burning questions until somebody starts thinking maybe we should try to answer them.
And, here’s a closing thought for you. Barcelona’s 133 game victory streak may be over, but the 136 game unbeaten streak marches on. Yeah, the match in question was a draw. I’m thinking if there had been extra time Barca would probably have kept their winning streak. And, Guadalajara also ran into Barcelona in the semifinals of the Copa Asobal a few weeks later with the opportunity to show everyone that the draw was no fluke. Final score? Barcelona 36, Guadalajara 22.