Readers of my articles in recent years know that I am often praising the European Handball Federation (EHF) for organizing and running its business and its events in a professional manner, sometimes in contrast with what can be seen from the International Handball Federation (IHF). But you will then also have noticed that, on several occasions, I have seen clear reasons to criticize the EHF severely, typically regarding issues involving inappropriate distortions of the global playing rules or poor handling of situations where punishment of actions by players and coaches has been required.
One example is the EHF practice to go against the rules and give out automatic suspensions in situations where referees have given a disqualification (‘red card’) under the provision of the rules where they alone have the right decide that the infraction falls into a category for which NO further punishment is warranted. Another example is the feeble handing of grotesque cases of misbehavior of coaches, where the image of the EHF and of our sport is at stake, but where the EHF has found some excuse for letting the culprit escape with essentially a ‘slap on wrist’. Examples are the action of the Hypo manager Prokop who entered the court to stop a counterattack for the opponents, and the Serbian coach who held on to the shirt of a player on the opposing team on the court in a game in the 2012 European Championship. The latter situation was quite inappropriately turned into some kind of joke.
However, during the early stages of the 2013-14 season, the focus has been much more on the effect of questionable refereeing in the men’s and women’s Champions League and most recently in EHF Cup matches. There has been an abundance of games, especially in the men’s Champions League, where the referees have been unable to control to action sufficiently and where cynical players have ‘taken matters into their own hands’. As a result, many games have more resembled wrestling, rugby or American football, with players in piles on the floor and with a generally unpleasant atmosphere. Of course, this reality does not remain a secret, as the EHF-TV webcasts make the scenes available to handball fans around the globe. In some cases, the issue has been more an apparently deviation from the expectation of equal treatment of both teams, as instead one team, typically the home team, has been getting unwarranted favors.
And the problems have not been limited to the men’s Champions League. Very recently, a key game, Baia Mare-Thuringer, in the preliminary groups on the women’s side led to strong reaction both from the losing team and from web viewers. The refereeing was grossly one-sided, as a serious video analysis will easily confirm. Regrettably, the coach from the losing team was unable to refrain from accusations about bribery. This is a serious statement which cannot be permitted unless there is clear evidence. So now the EHF has to investigate both the refereeing and the rash words by the coach. And as a culmination, we just had the Zomimak-Aarhus game in the men’s EHF Cup, where incompetent referees allowed a level of outright violence that does not belong on a handball court. A Youtube video clip from this game has caused very negative propaganda worldwide.
It is clear that the EHF competition system is so large that the supply of competent referees may not quite match the demands. In comparison with the IHF and its handful of World Championships each year, the EHF must rely on a much larger pool, which includes older referees who were not able to qualify for the IHF level, referees discarded by the IHF, and young new EHF referees without much experience. But I have enough experience from referee nominations and enough up-to-date knowledge of the top referees used by the EHF (in part by following most of the Champions League games on the internet), so I can firmly state that the EHF should be able to do a MUCH better job of matching the available referees with the demands of the games in the different competitions. I can only speculate about the motivations for what is taking place, but I would label many of the nominations for the Champions League careless, cynical or experimental.
Even worse, a careful analysis makes you wonder about the presence of ‘geopolitical’ considerations, which sometimes seem to outweigh concerns about quality. Certain referees and referees from certain regions get puzzling assignments where they are ‘in over their heads’ or cannot resist the pressures from spectators, and certain teams seem to get ‘strange’ nominations. It makes you wonder both about the role of the entire Referee Committee in this regard, and the existence of ‘checks and balances’. And it gives the impression that, just as in the case of legal procedures (where a ‘hands off’ approach may be more understandable and appropriate), the EHF top management in the case of the management of the refereeing carelessly turns a blind eye to what is happening. Clearly, the impact is much too important both for the image of the EHF and for our sport overall.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that it is being rumored that the IHF has found it appropriate to introduce a special effort to monitor and support the IHF referees throughout the year in their performances in their own respective continents. This has been a shortcoming over many years, especially as new recruits at the IHF level tend be younger and less experienced than in the past, so it is a topic that I myself tried to pursue during my IHF period. And it is now becoming more realistic, as the IHF Referee Committee is monitoring many continental events outside Europe and as it is possible to follow the top European events through web streaming and video. The IHF referees benefit from educational efforts and close supervision during the course of World Championships, but they need, and deserve, more continuous and systematic support. The IHF deserves credit for recognizing that.