Part 1: Grass Roots vs National Team Focus: Recent National Team Losses Should Raise Doubts on National Team Focus

Intrepide Youth

How does a club team in Guadeloupe beat a national team from the U.S.? Answer: It’s start with superior youth development programs.

This past April the USA Women’s National Team traveled to Puerto Rico where they played several matches.  They lost twice to the Puerto Rican national team, beat the Puerto Rican junior national team and lost twice to French Guadeloupe’s top club team, Intrepide.  Depending on your perspective these results could be considered as either totally disheartening or a sign of mild progression.  If your perspective is that of an old timer you’re disappointed as Puerto Rico is a team that the U.S. would typically beat by 10 goals or more.  If your perspective is more recent it’s a sign of mild progression as the Puerto Rican team is roughly equal to the U.S. and we were able to play competitively against them in their home country.

More interesting to me, however, are the the two losses against, Club Intrepide, and the contrast it presents.  Most Americans probably don’t know much about France’s Overseas Departments: Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion Island.  I, for one, was fairly ignorant about them until I lived in France and started following French sports more closely.  France’s national handball and basketball teams have several players from these Islands far removed from France.  And athletes from from these islands also play on a number of club teams in France.  I saw this first hand in the over 35 basketball league I played in while living in Paris. Trust me, those guys from the Caribe can play ball and this tall American player knew he was in for a workout, but also thankfully for some Ti’ Punch after the match.

Still, Guadaloupe has only around 400,000 inhabitants and the town of Sainte-Anne where Club Intrepide is based has 23,000 residents.  How does a small town with very modest living conditions put together a club that can beat the U.S. National Team?  Well, there are probably a number of reasons, but I would argue that the underlying reason is that the tiny town of Sainte-Anne has a better organized and structured youth program than what the entire U.S.has put together coast to coast.  Most likely the players on Club Intrepide have been playing since their early teens, if not earlier.  Whereas most of the players on the U.S. weren’t introduced to the sport until their 20′s.

U.S. Women’s Team:  Modest Progress or Regression?

In theory, with 318 million people the U.S. can overcome its lack of developed youth programs by finding and training top notch athletes regardless of age.  And, superior athleticism can indeed trump skill and experience if the athleticism gap is big enough.  But, that’s a big “if” and these recent results are a pretty strong indication that the U.S. isn’t overwhelming it’s competition athletically.  Instead it is simply a continuation of less than satisfactory results seen in 2011 and 2013.  And, while Rome wasn’t built in a day there should be an expectation of better results.

Even more concerning is a not widely advertised loss that the U.S. Women suffered against West Point at the Collegiate nationals.  (I did not see this match, but heard one of the commentators mention it during one of the other matches.)  I suspect that the U.S side had some very recent additions to the U.S. Residency program, but there’s still no excuse for ever losing to a collegiate team. Residency athletes are supposed to be the cream of the crop, training on a daily basis and should be able to overwhelm a collegiate side.  Still, I will say it’s not the first time a Service Academy side has played a National Team close:  When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy we narrowly lost a close match vs the U.S. National Team.  Thing is, though:  I was on the Men’s club team and we lost to the Women’s National Team.  (Maybe, this gives you some perspective as to where I’m coming from when I make an assessment that not one single player on the current USA Women’s team would have made any of our Olympic rosters from 84 to 96!)

Don’t Blame the Athletes

I’d like to make some perfectly clear.  I do not, nor should anyone else, blame the athletes for their lack of success.  They are a hard working bunch making a lot of sacrifices to improve their game.  They’ve been given the opportunity to train full time at a Residency Program and they’re doing their best to make the most of it.  Heck, in many respects as a former national team player with modest skills I really identify with them and their dreams.

Taking Stock: Are Residency Programs the best place to spend limited resources?

No, if blame is to be assigned that blame goes straight to the decision makers.  And, basically the fundamental question is whether it is better to direct resources towards athletes chasing the 2016 dream or towards efforts that will improve chances for U.S. success in 2020 or 2024.  As someone who’s a already expended quite a bit of time and energy addressing this question it’s fairly clear where I stand.  Although, written a year ago little has changed to alter my position.  In fact, it’s hardened as 2016 Olympic Qualification seems more unlikely now, the Auburn program seems to be a bit on the austere side and the prospect of a U.S. hosted 2024 Olympics seems even more likely.

Some might argue that resources directed towards 2016 also helps the out years, but the reality is that there’s minimal overlap at this point in time.  This is especially true if you look at the ages of both the men’s and women’s team.  The women’s program at Auburn is especially long in the tooth with many players in their late 20s.  Even worse in what I’ll generously call highly questionable recruiting the U.S. has brought in several rookies that probably range in age from 24-29.  (I say probably, because the U.S. Federation doesn’t list the ages of it’s athletes on its website and ages were deduced by internet searches for their last year of college.)  If out year success is desired it goes without saying that this sort of recruit should be the very rare exception instead of the norm.

The U.S. Federation hasn’t provided much in terms of rationale for this spending decision other than that previous residency programs have resulted in most successful national teams for the U.S.  A true statement, but one that neglects a number of “Yes, buts” to include:

  • That previous success wasn’t all that successful:  No Olympic medals and zero victories over top European sides in Olympic or WC competition.
  • European leagues are far more professionalized now:  Virtually every top athlete in the world is now training and competing regularly in a professional environment superior to the club and national team regimens of the past, further widening the gap between what the U.S. can do with a residency program.
  • Our competition in Pan America is now much stiffer: Grass Roots development in Latin America has resulted in stronger national teams, both technically and athletically.  And, their top players are now playing for top European clubs.
  • More post college opportunities for collegiate athletes:  Playing opportunities with decent salaries abound for 2nd and 3rd tier athletes in many sports making recruiting crossover athletes even more challenging.

Quite frankly, I am totally perplexed that smart people don’t look at these stark realities and come to the same conclusion that I have:  That a Residency Program focused on crossover athletes in their mid to late 20′s has very little chance of success.  That it is a huge drain on very limited resources.  And, that other paths and possibilities need to be considered, carefully assessed and pursued.

What are some of those possibilities?  In part 2 I will identify some options for consideration but, only after I first take a closer look at the current club situation and the state of grass roots development in the U.S.

Pivotal USA – Puerto Rico Match likely to determine nonqualifier

PATHF-logo-grande

The North American and Caribbean Men’s Handball Championships will qualify 4 teams for this summer’s Pan American Handball Championships in Uruguay.  With 5 nations participating this means only 1 nation won’t punch their ticket for Uruguay.  There’s still quite a few games to be played, but with Puerto Rico having lost their first two matches by large margins they appear to be the weakest team.  Mathematically, there best hope is a win today against the U.S. which is the only other team without a victory.  The U.S. lost 21-15 against Cuba in its only match so far.  Following a 13-5 deficit in the first half the U.S. played much better in the 2nd half, actually outscoring the Cubans 10-8.  Based on that performance the U.S. should be able to get a win and all but punch their ticket for Uruguay.

Match time is 5:00 PM (U.S. Eastern Time) and will be streamed live at the link below.

Tournament Standings: Link

Webstreaming website:  Link

Caribbean Cup ongoing in the Dominican Republic

Copa-caribe

Caribbean nations are currently competing in the Dominican Republic.

The Caribbean Cup Handball Tournament started yesterday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  This tournament is the Caribbean region qualification event for next year’s Central and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, Mexico.  Nations participating in the Men’s tournament are the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Mexico.  The Women’s tournament has the same nations, minus Mexico.  Haiti and Venezuela had indicated that they were going to participate, but pulled out shortly before the tournament.  The result of this is that the 4 qualification slots will automatically be awarded to the nations attending.  (Mexico had already qualified as host.)

In yesterday’s action, the Cuban Men returned to International competition in fine style with a relatively easy victory over Mexico, 31-22.  The second men’s match between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico was suspended due to water leaking on to the court and will be restarted later today.  The Dominican Republic was leading 5-3 after 11 minutes played.  In the sole women’s match the Dominican Republic women easily defeated Puerto Rico, 30-17.

Although the tournament will have no bearing on qualification it will serve as preview of next year’s Central American & Caribbean Games.  As the Central American sides are relatively new to handball in all likelihood the nations participating in this all Caribbean tournament will be the same ones fighting for the 3 PANAM Games slots next November in Mexico.  In particular, it will be interesting to see how well the Cuban Men and Women perform in this competition.

USA Team Handball followers might also get a good idea as to which 2 nations they might play against in the the 2nd chance qualification tournament in 2015 for the PANAM Games.  The 4th and 5th place nations from this region, the 4th place nation from South America and the U.S. will battle for the 8th and final spot for the 2015 PANAM Games sometime in early 2015.  (For more information on 2016 Olympic Games Qualification check the links on the right hand side of the page.)

For more information and to follow the Caribbean Cup competition check out the links below.

Standings and results Wiki (Mundo Handball):  Link

 

Live Stream and on demand highlights:  Link

Pan America: Sorting out North, South, Central and Caribbean nations for team handball event qualification

PATHF and PANAM

I recently updated the World Championship and Olympic Qualification pages (See links on right hand side) and in doing so I got a bit of a geography lesson.  And that lesson is the following:

There is no definitive agreed upon standard for defining what countries are part of North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

For sure, no one is ever going to place Canada in South America or Argentina in North America, but when you start talking about the countries in the middle of Pan America it’s wide open for debate.  Depending on the context and who’s talking Mexico is or isn’t part of Central America and the Caribbean nations can simply consist of the islands in the midst of that sea or those islands plus nations on the continent with coastlines on the sea.  Setting aside the generic debate, in the context of Team Handball those regions can be defined.  Albeit, it depends on what competition you’re concerned.  Confused?  So, was I.  So, here forthwith is an explanation that should help clear things up a bit.

1) The Pan American Team Handball Federation has administratively divided Pan America into 3 regions:  North & Caribbean, Central and South.  Those 3 regions are depicted in the top picture and qualification events for Pan American Championships are held every 2 years (Men) (Women) for the nations in those regions.  The Pan American Championships also serve as the qualification event for the World Championships, with typically 3 teams (and sometimes 4) earning slots.

2) The Pan American (PANAM) Games is a quadrennial event organized by the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO).  Qualification for the Team Handball Tournament at the PANAM Games is depicted in the bottom picture and is grouped into 3 regions: North, Central & Caribbean and South.  Qualification for the PANAM Games takes place every four years.

3) The Caribbean island nations (Barbados, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago) and Mexico swing back and forth.  They are grouped with with the North nations for Pan American Championship qualification and grouped with the Central nations for PANAM Games qualification

4) Greenland is recognized by PATHF and therefore can participate in Pan American Championships Qualification.  Greenland, however, is not recognized by the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) and therefore cannot participate in PANAM Games Qualification.

5) For PANAM Games qualification Colombia and Venezuela can participate in either South American qualification or Central & Caribbean qualification.  Granted, give the current relative strengths of both regions it would be far more difficult to qualify through the South American Games, but they have that option

6) Some competitions can serve as qualification events for both Pan American Championships and PANAM Games competition.  For example, this is the case with the upcoming South American Games this March in Chile.  The top 3 nations at this event will earn slots for the 2015 PANAM Games and the top 5 nations will earn slots for the 2014 Pan American Championships.  And adding a little more confusion is the practicality that Colombia and Venezuela would likely participate in this event for Pan American Championship qualification purposes only.

Enlarged View of Pan American Championships Qualification Map: Link

Enlarged View of PANAM Games Qualification Map:  Link

Summary translation of Interview given by Javier Garcia about the Residency Program and related issues

Javier Garcia Cuesta at the microphone

Javier Garcia Cuesta at the microphone

In recent days, Javier Garcia gave an interview (in Spanish) with the Handball de Primera radio program in Argentina.  They had heard the news about the Residency Program which is being initiated and had read some of the accompanying statements on the USATH web page, so they were curious about the intentions and the specifics. Here is a brief summary of the interview (with a couple of my comments within parentheses):

Javier explained that essentially the Residency Program has two phases: first, an urgent effort to improve the quality of the existing men’s and women’s national teams by giving at least some of the players an opportunity to practice together and with more intensity, so that they could combine with the players we have in clubs abroad to form stronger teams for the PanAmerican Games in Toronto in July 2015. The hope would also be that one could find some strong athletes without handball experience who could quickly become candidates for the teams. Javier admitted that the chances of creating cohesive, top level teams which would have a good chance to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016 might be slim, but every effort will be made to field competitive teams.

The second phase would be focused on the next Olympic cycle (which Javier surely would hope will culminate in 2020 in Madrid, in his country of origin – the host for 2020 will be decided next month). There would be a more systematic build-up of teams, with a more realistic scope for newcomers to handball to become fully integrated and proficient. Javier emphasized that, during this period, ONLY the participants in the Residency Program would be considered for the national teams. (One might wonder what this means for those many players who are currently firmly entrenched in club teams abroad, such as the many dual citizens on our ‘under 21′ women’s team; does this mean that they have to move to Auburn to remain eligible)?

Javier indicated that an effort will be made to establish intramural handball, first at Auburn and then at other universities in Alabama and in the region (SEC?), for the purpose of creating a broader interest and as a support for the recruitment. However, the main new pipeline effort would be to create junior teams more widely around the country on a regional basis, so that talents could be captured and channeled into handball at a younger age and play competitive games on a regular basis. No details were provided as to how this could best be achieved. But the sense was that this would be a very necessary recruitment effort, parallel to the one that would be based on 21-22 year old college athletes who might be looking for an opportunity to continue in elite level sports after college, once they realize that their dreams of a professional career in a major sport are not realistic.

The interviewer also wanted to pin Javier down about the realities of USOC support for a sport like handball. (As I know from my own experience, many handball fans around the world are not so ready to believe that an Olympic sport in the U.S. might be left so completely to its own devices). Javier explained the vicious circle, in the sense that the USOC will want to invest its resources towards the chase for Olympic medals and not for the grassroots support of sports which are not competitive at that level. So Javier seemed to imply that the urgency of getting a Residency Program had a lot to do with the necessity of showing the USOC some real progress at the international level, with some hope that an improvement in the next 2-3 years might lead to stronger USOC support for the next four-year period.

Women’s Pan American Championships: Team USA Results (A look at the numbers)

Hesser

Stephanie Hesser: The leading scorer for Team USA and one of the few bright spots for the team.

Overall Results

The 2011 Women’s Pan American Championships concluded this past weekend with fairly predictable results.  Brazil dominated the completion winning all 6 of their games by an eye popping average of 30 goals.  The Dominican Republic came the closest, losing by only 15 in group play.  The runners up, Argentina, lost by 23 in the Gold Medal, but can take some consolation in their 10 goal victory over the Dominican Republic in the semifinals.  That clear victory establishes that side as the 2nd best team in Pan America.  With Brazil already qualified as the 2016 Olympics host, Argentina should be favored to take 2nd place at the 2015 PANAM Games in Canada, where the Pan American slot for the 2016 Olympics will be awarded.

In terms of 2013 World Championships qualification, Paraguay was the surprise team joining Brazil, Argentina and the Dominican Republic as the 4 representatives from Pan America.  This is the 2nd time Paraguay has pulled off a surprise as they also qualified in 2007.

Pan American Championships Results Page:  Link

U.S. Results

Panamstats

The U.S. came away with a 1-5 record and took 8th place out of 10 teams.  Against their top opponents in pool play lost to Brazil, 44-10 and the Dominican Republic, 27-11.  Against the 3 teams that placed 5th (Uruguay), 6th (Mexico) and 7th (Venezuela) the U.S. lost by 13, 7 and 7 goals respectively, with the bright spot being that each of those matches were closely contested until those opponents pulled away in the 2nd half.  On the positive side, the U.S. did have a convincing 17 goal victory over Costa Rica, but this is tempered by the fact that the Central American debutantes lost all 5 of their matches by an average of 26 goals.

Individually, Stephanie Hesser, was the stand out player for the U.S. leading the team in scoring with 27 goals.  At 19 years of age, she was also the team’s youngest court player, so one can hope that she will continue to improve as a player for many years to come.  After Hesser, the U.S. had 5 other players with at least 10 goals in the 6 matches.  Those players are Megan Ballard (16), Julia Taylor (15), Kathy Darling (14), Tomuke Ebuwei (12) and Sarah Gascon (10).   Federation reports on the matches also indicate decent performances in the goal by Sophie Fasold and Freja Dobreff.

Video of several of the matches is available on the Pan American Team Handball Federation YouTube channel.  Although, the video is not of the best quality a sampling of several matches highlights some glaring weaknesses with the U.S.  In particular, the U.S. offensive attack lacks quickness and the team does not have any backcourt players with significant 1 on 1 scoring capability.  This lack of a scoring punch is most evident in the total goals scored against Brazil (10) and the Dominican Republic (11).  Defensively, the team does fairly well when it gets a chance to get set up, but offensive turnovers resulted in far too many fast breaks.  Finally, the 2nd half collapses against weaker foes, Uruguay, Mexico, Venezuela points to a lack of conditioning playing a role at the end of matches.

A Sideways Trend

Unfortunately, these poor results are nothing new for the USA Women.  Here’s a review of how the team has placed in Pan American competitions since 2007:

2007 Pan American Championships: 7th out of 8 teams
2007 Pan American Games:  Did not qualify
2009 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 Pan American games: 8th out of 8 teams
2013 Pan American Championships 8th out of 10 teams

(Note:  The Pan American Championship is held every 2 years and the top 3-4 teams qualify for the World Championships.  The Pan American Games are held every 4 years and the top team qualifies for the Olympics)

And here’s a comparison of 2010/11 and 2013 match results against the same nations:

vs Brazil (2011): Loss 50-10 (pool play)
vs Brazil (2013): Loss 44-10 (pool play)

vs Dominican Republic (2011): Loss 33-26 (pool play)
vs Dominican Republic (2013): Loss 27-11 (pool play)

vs Mexico (2011): Loss 29-27 (consolation semi)
vs Mexico (2013): Loss 30-23 (pool play)

vs Uruguay (2011): Loss 36-24 (pool play)
vs Uruguay (2011): Loss 30-23 (7th place match)
vs Uruguay (2013): Loss 30-17 (consolation semi)

vs Venezuela (2010): Loss 32-21 (PANAM Games Qualifier)
vs Venezuela (2013): Loss 36-29 (7th place match)

Chances for 2016 Qualification

Looking at that these numbers it’s hard to rationalize a dramatic upward trajectory that leads to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.  Perhaps, if Team USA had been able to muster a semifinal berth or even a 5th place showing a decent case could be made that the team was on the verge of a breakthrough.  Instead, against the best sides it’s pretty evident that the U.S. is totally outclassed.  And, even against other developing nations, there’s a significant gap as the U.S. has been consistently on the losing side, albeit by smaller margins.  Yes, the U.S. was missing its leading scorer from the 2011 PANAM Games, Karoline Borg, but while she is a skilled player who would have helped steady the team I would assess her presence would simply resulted in some slightly more respectable score lines.

So, can the U.S. close the gap?  And more importantly, can it do so by July 2015 when the PANAM Games take place in Toronto, Canada?  Well, anything is possible.  But, as I pointed out previously a number of things would have to fall into place.  First and foremost, the player pool of talented athletes needs to expand dramatically and quickly.  And, if those athletes can be found quickly they would need a highly structured training environment supplemented with regular competition.  Can the players be found that quickly?  Does USA Team Handball have the funds or USOC support to set up a full-fledged (not an austere) Residency Program?  I don’t think the answers to either of those questions are “yes” and quite frankly, even if they were, two years is not a lot of time to work with.

Time to throw in the towel?

I most adamantly would never advocate telling an athlete to give up the fight in the heat of a competition.  And, I also would be reluctant to even diplomatically give such advice to an athlete that’s pondering their future.  I’ve been there and such a decision is a personal one dependent on a number of variables.  It’s not always a rationale or logical choice and it’s up to each individual to make that decision.

For organizations, however, decisions on the future should be made carefully, rationally, logically and firmly based on that organization’s goals.  And while it’s rarely a popular decision, throwing in the towel is sometimes the right decision.  Especially, if it’s not really giving up, but merely redirecting resources towards future success.

With those thoughts in mind, it should be clear that USA Team Handball should be developing a plan which is more focused on 2020 or even 2024 Olympic Qualification.  This means spending funds and man-hours on efforts that will that maximize the likelihood that younger and more talented athletes are found and developed.  In other words, athletes that just might be around 7 or even 11 years from now.  If one looks at the U.S. roster from the last event there are only 4 athletes that definitely fit that criterion:  Stephanie Hesser, Julia Taylor, Sophie Fasold and Freja Dobreff.

Youth isn’t everything, but it’s well known that every sports franchise takes an athlete’s current age into consideration before it signs a long term contract.  Older players can and do win (How about my San Antonio Spurs), but unless they are at the top of their game younger players will come along to gently ease them into retirement.  Not simply because they are younger, but because they are better.

I’ll close with one last telling statistic that should give any doubters further pause.  Argentina, which is clearly the team that the U.S. and any other wannabe Pan-American team has to beat for Rio, fielded a squad with an average age of 22.9 years.  Only 3 players on the U.S. roster were younger than average.

Greenland withdraws as host for PanAm qualifying – perhaps opportunity for USA to host?

It seems the Greenland team may yet again have to travel...

It seems the Greenland team may yet again have to travel…

The North-Caribbean (NorCa) qualifying for the PanAmerican Championship for men has been planned to be hosted by Greenland in Nuuk in October. The 2014 PanAmerican Championship is, as usual, the event that in turn decides the slots from PanAmerica for the 2015 World Championship. However, judging from firm reports on the Facebook page of the Greenland Handball Federation, they have now reached the conclusion that the hosting of the NorCa event is unrealistic for financial reasons.

Handball is a dominant sport in Greenland, and one of the few sports where Greenland has participated with some success at the international level during the last 10-15 years. So there is a substantial amount of pride involved in the support for the Greenland national team and, up to a point, also a willingness to support it financially. Their federation has made it clear that the event would be viable as far as the local arrangements and expenses are concerned. The crux is obviously the exorbitant cost of having the teams from Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the U.S. find their way to Greenland. There are no easy routes and cheap tickets available, so a charter arrangement via Canada or Iceland would have been the only realistic alternative. But even this would involves expenses in the order of US$ 700.000.

In principle, the travel costs to such events are normally borne fully by the participating teams, but both the Greenland Federation and the PanAmerican Federation have always understood that an event in Greenland would only be viable if sponsors for the travel expenses could be found, as the potentially participating teams simply could not afford it. The International Handball Federation had apparently undertaken to support the endeavor with an amount somewhat below US$ 100.000, something which is an unusual gesture in the case of a continental event. (Of course, it is the IHF that has created the tough situation for Greenland by placing them in the PanAmerican continent…!).

But the support from the Greenland authorities will not be large enough, and the search for sufficient sponsorship in the business sector has apparently been unsuccessful, despite the realization that the event could create valuable PR for Greenland. So disappointed handball fans around Greenland, who had also tried to provide support on an individual basis, now seem to be resigned to the fact that the exciting plans must be scrapped. It must be frustrating also for the national team, considering that these players, just like the women, have frequently had to undertake travel to Argentina and Brazil for qualifying events in previous years. So it had only been fair, if they had now been able to play at home.

It may now seem that the decision by Greenland may open up an opportunity for the U.S. Federation. CEO Matt van Houten alluded to this in his recent interview with John Ryan. Presumably some amount of USOC support could be counted on for such an endeavor. It would be advantageous not just from a financial standpoint but also because it presumably would give an edge to our team. But there are clearly several hurdles that need to be overcome. One perennial problem in connection with intentions in the past to host such events has been the visa question. In other words, for some of the countries involved it has previously turned out to be difficult to obtain guarantees that all their players would be given visas to enter the U.S. Based on past experience, this could hypothetically apply to Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. One would hope that this would not yet again become an insurmountable obstacle if our Federation were to move ahead with the idea of hosting the event.

THN (26 Jan 2007): Greenland Handball: A National Passion:  Link

PanAmerican qualifying for Men’s Youth World Championship

not very many of these flags will actually be flying in Venezuela...

not very many of these flags will actually be flying in Venezuela…

Today the PATHF Youth Championship gets underway in San Cristobal, Venezuela. At stake are four slots at the World Championship tournament in Hungary, August 10-23. Regrettably, there is no team representing USA in this event.

In fact, the PATHF Championship points to a discouraging ‘polarization’ within our continent. First, while theoretically such a Championship could have as many as ten teams, only seven eligible teams have entered, so the hosts Venezuela are ’rounding out’ one of the groups with its ‘B’ team. Among these teams, we have Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, i.e., the four currently most competitive handball nations from the south; in addition, of course, the hosts Venezuela, but also relative newcomer Colombia. There is no representative from Central America, and the only team from the North/Caribbean region is Canada. In other words, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Greenland and Cuba are all missing, just like the U.S. team.

Four teams will qualify, and the format involves two groups of four teams. The way the groups have been drawn, we have a situation where Brazil and Chile surely will advance to the World Championship from group A, ahead of Colombia and the ‘B’ team from Venezuela which obviously is participating outside the competition. The excitement will be in group B, where Argentina should win the group, but where we may have a tough fight among Canada, Uruguay and Venezuela for the remaining slot. Let us hope the Canada will be strong enough to grab that slot, so that we will not have a situation where only teams from the very South are able to advance.

The Youth World Championship will for the first time have 24 teams. Thirteen of them will come from Europe, after Oceania gave up their slot. Most of the currently strong countries on the men’ side will be there (Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Slovenia, Romania, Austria, Norway, Belarus and host Hungary). Africa will be represented by Egypt, Tunisia, Angola and Gabon, whereas Asia will have Qatar, Japan and Korea. So the teams qualifying from PanAmerica will have their hands full in August. The event will take place in Budaoers and Erd, towns rather close to Budapest, along the highway leading southwest to Lake Balaton and Veszprem.

Men’s Junior PanAmerican Championship and GRTP referee course

A successful week in Mar del Plata

A successful week in Mar del Plata

During the past week, the PATHF organized a combination of events in Argentina: the Men’s Junior PanAmerican Championship, the South American Women’s Championship, and a GRTP referee course.

The Men’s Junior event also served as qualification for the IHF World Championship this summer. Not surprisingly, the final was between Argentina and Brazil, with the Brazilian visitors pulling off a 25-21 victory. Together with these two teams, Chile gained the remaining slot in the World Championship, by winning the bronze medal game against Puerto Rico b y the score 34-28. Uruguay won 5th place by defeating Venezuela 34-27 and Mexico had an easy time in gaining the 7th place through a 31-18 win against Canada. It is of course pure speculation to discuss how a USA team would have fared if they had participated, but the results and placement of the Canadians may give us a hint.

In the Women’s South American event, it did not exactly come as a surprise that Brazil was able to dominate by easily winning all the games in a round-robin tournament. Argentina came in second, but they were outclassed by Brazil (37-23, half-time 20-5). Uruguay and Paraguay came next in the ranking and qualified for the PanAmerican Championship that will be held in the Dominican Republic in June. Venezuela also qualified, as the best ‘non-elite’ team, even though they actually lost to Chile, under the new, somewhat complex methods of the PATHF. The five successful teams will be joined by the team of the host country, three other representatives from North America/Caribbean and one team from Central America.

PanAmerica has been lagging behind in comparison with the other non-European continents in the efforts to identify and develop refereeing talents for the IHF level. Moreover, the existing group of IHF and Continental couples has been dominated by Argentina and Brazil. This is understandable, as these are the countries where young referees can gain tough match experience, but it creates problems when neutral referees have to be found for the Argentina vs. Brazil battles in all the different categories and events. At this moment, only one iHF couple can be found outside the southern part of our continent, namely Guzman and Perez from Puerto Rico.

The IHF/GRTP course, which could draw on the abundance of matches in the two tournaments, had about ten couples participating under the leadership of the IHF Lecturer Felix Raetz, the PATHF referee chief Salvio Sedrez and numerous lecturers from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Apart from match performances, the final results were also based on rules tests and physical tests. The five couples who gained the Continental status, as a first step in their pursuit of the IHF license were: Paolantoni and Zanikian (ARG-women), Burgos/Delagado (ARG), Magalhaes/Rocha (BRA), Lemes/Sosa (URU) and Joergensen/Posch (USA). We congratulate them and wish them good luck in their continued endeavors!

Referee Course for the IHF level in PanAmerica

From a previous referee course in South America; several of these former IHF referees are now instructors for the new generation

From a previous referee course in South America; several of these former IHF referees are now instructors for the new generation

Generally I am trying to spare you from stories about my personal experiences in over 50 years in handball. But I must admit it is sometimes tempting to get carried away about some aspect of my involvement in the IHF, in Panamerica, in USA handball, or even in my young handball days in Sweden, where I first got involved internationally through Partille Cup and various other big events. Today I will however make an exception, because of the seemingly interesting link between the past and the present.

It is true that many of my memories are related to events such as Olympic Games and World Championships, including travel to places on the other side of the globe. But many of the more nostalgic stories involve people, especially referees, and the opportunities to have met so many who struggled for the progress of handball in difficult circumstances and with limited resources.

Many of those encounters have taken place here at home in the U.S. but perhaps particularly down in Latin America. Most of my travel was to Argentina, Brazil and Cuba. And it was always a particular pleasure to identify and support refereeing talents in those countries and beyond. During one period, I had been involved with the ascension of virtually the entire group of IHF referees from our continent, and I had enjoyed a whole lot of very special moments in the process.

The struggle continues, because handball remains a sport in modest circumstances in Panamerica. But the work involved in bringing referees to the top level has been taken over by others. And for me personally, it is a bit special to see that, at this point, the key people in that task are all from among the group of now former referees whom I was once involved in helping. They have finished their own careers as referees but are so ‘hooked’ that they see is as natural to support the next generation.

In connection with next week’s Men’s Junior Panamerican Championship in Argentina, referees from all parts of our continent will endeavor to qualify for, or at least take the first big step towards, the IHF Referee status. Among the participants are Lars Jedermann and Christian Posch from the U.S., which is nice to see after we have not had a strong IHF couple for a while. And as lecturers they will find Salvio Sedrez (BRA – currently PATHF Referee Chief), Patricia Malik de Tchara (ARG – the first female top level IHF referee), Eduardo Gonzalez (URU), and Thedy Adjemian (ARG), all of whom I accompanied several times to various IHF World Championships.

In fact, we have the same situation here in the U.S., where Thomas Bojsen, Tugomir Anusic, Bruce Mosberg and Tomas Kekes-Szabo keep serving in different capacities in the referee development after having finished their own careers at the Olympic and World Championship level. Indeed, we may have one of the strongest groups of referee instructors anywhere in the world, but with the unfortunate irony that they do not typically have a large group of new referee talents to work with!

Going back to the traditional scenario in a referee course down in Argentina, I think Lars and Christian will find that the hard work and the concentration on doing their utmost to impress in their games is combined with a great atmosphere from a social standpoint. The consumption of blood sausage, the beer drinking (non-alcoholic, of course…), the music and the story telling will be important part of the experience. Language barriers tend to be easily broken in such a setting.

And by strange coincidence, the participants will arrive in Argentina at a moment when the locals seem to be in a state of euphoria after having just had a compatriot elected as the new Pope. He is known to be a humble man, a man of the people, and in Argentina that includes being a soccer fan. I had had some hope to find that he would turn out to be a fan of the team that I naturally have to support, Boca Juniors, who indeed got their blue and yellow colors from the Swedish flag. But it seems that, perhaps appropriately, he instead supports the San Lorenzo team (the team of my successor as PATHF referee chief, Miguel Zaworotny). Whether the new Pope is also a fan of handball remains unknown to me!

IHF Challenge Cup: Some numbers behind the results

Team USA’s Olivia Goncerz (#4), Lynn Hodderson (#11) and Anja Borg (#5) try to stop a Mexican attack.

The USA recently competed in an IHF Challenge Cup Tournament in Mexico from 7-11 November.  The Challenge Cups are an IHF initiative to give more playing opportunities for less developed handball nations.  A men’s under age 20 competition and a women’s under age 19 competition was held and the other nations participating were Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico.  The USA Teams did not fare well overall.  The men placed 4th losing all four of their matches, while the women placed 3rd, managing a draw and a win against Puerto Rico.

Men’s Results

Group Play
USA – Mexico 23-33 (13-15)
USA – Canada 30-37 (17-19)
USA – Puerto Rico 30-35 (15-16)

3rd Place Match
USA – Canada 38-40 (19-20)

Roster/Place of Residence/USA Club/Scoring
Javier Galindo, Spain, 38 Goals
Orton Fofana, France 29 Goals
Connor Holt, West Point, 17 Goals
Alex Binderis, Sweden, 15 Goals
Andrew Donlin, Air Force, 12 Goals
Ian Pinson, LA THC, 6 Goals
Stefan Paunovic, Denmark, 3 Goals
Jerome Nohr, Germany, 1 Goal
Tyler Shukert, Minnesota, 0 Goals
Domenic Lapore, Salt Lake City, 0 Goals
Ryan Petersen, Cary HC, 0 goals

Goalies
Chris Hesser, Dynamo HC
David Brown, West Point

While it’s disappointing that the men didn’t win any games, the scorelines indicate that all four matches were competitive, with the half-time differentials all 2 goals or less.  A far better than last year’s Under 19 team which lost 60-8 to Argentina at the Pan American Championships.  The two leading scorers for the U.S. appear to have been dual citizen athletes, Javier Galindo (Spain) and Orton Fofano (France).  As they accounted for 55% of the U.S. offensive output, one can conclude that their addition to the roster was pretty pivotal to the U.S. respectable performance.  Other key contributors were Alex Binderis who lives in Sweden and two cadets, Connor Holt of West Point and Andrew Donlin of Air Force.

Women’s Results

Group Play
USA – Puerto Rico 29-29 (16-11)
USA – Mexico 23-14 (7-9)
USA – Canada 34-13 (10-18)

3rd Place
USA – Puerto Rico 34-27 (13-15)

Roster/Place of Residence/USA Club/Scoring
Anja Borg, Norway, 19 Goals
Stefanie Hesser, Dynamo HC, 18 Goals
Maja Storm, Germany, 13 Goals
Morgan Thorkelsdottir, Iceland, 12 Goals
Lynn Hoddersen, Germany, 9 Goals
Alana Steinarsdottir, Iceland, 6 Goals
Olivia Goncerz, Jersey Girls, 5 Goals
Sierra Thompson, Sweden, 4 Goals
Natalie Dabrowski, Jersey Girls, 2 Goals
Izabela Szymanski, Jersey Girls, 1 Goal
Essence Jones, LA THC, 0 Goals
Kamila Pawka, Jersey Girls, 0 Goals

Goalies
Sophie Fasold, Dynamo HC
Freja Dobreff, Germany

The USA Women fared better overall with a draw and a win against Puerto Rico, but the 34-13 pounding at the hands of Canada was a clear demonstration of a stronger Canadian youth program.  The U.S.  foreign resident scoring attack was even more pronounced for the women with 2/3 of the goals coming from overseas based players.

Commentary

I have mixed feelings about the benefits of these tournaments for our younger players.  On the one hand, I like to see the USA competing in international competition.  It’s a tremendous opportunity for those athletes and potentially a great motivating tool to encourage more athletes to take up the sport in the U.S.  But, if the bulk of the team is composed of athletes who already have great playing opportunities in Europe, then it’s less of an incentive for those U.S. based players.  But, then again if the U.S. had sent teams composed primarily of U.S. based players they would likely have suffered some truly embarrassing losses even in this challenge competition against other lower level handball nations.

On the whole, I think that the funding and resources expended to participate in these tournaments could probably be spent better on U.S. based development programs.  (Especially, if you factor in the transportation costs to send European based athletes to a tournament in Mexico.)  For example, a week long camp in the USA with multiple regional teams, similar to the U.S. Olympic Festivals of the past could perhaps be conducted with similar overall costs.  And instead of evaluating 15 athletes, the U.S. could evaluate maybe as many as 60 athletes, including some that can’t get released for a November tournament due to school and other sport commitments.  (It’s hard to fully calculate costs as there would be a lot of variables in terms of lodging and transportation.)

I’m probably not the first individual to think of such an alternative event.  The problem is, however, that the funding and resources for the IHF Challenge Cups comes from the IHF and the U.S. Federation simply can’t redirect that support somewhere else.   And as the IHF hasn’t always spent its funds very judiciously, I can’t complain too loudly at a program that is clearly attempting to spread the wealth even if it may be a bit misguided.

As a final commentary, I’ll point out that the Federation really needs to get their act together in regards to its reporting of an event like this.  A tournament where Americans (teenagers, no less) are representing their country should be a prime recruiting tool for athletes with daily reports and plenty of action photographs on the website and facebook.   Instead, the scores and results were never even posted.   As the saying goes, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Related commentary

THN (3 May 2011) Commentary: USA Team Handball National Teams: Are there too many guys with short haircuts and accents? (Part 1: Military Athletes)

THN (10 May 2011): Commentary: USA Team Handball National Teams: Are there too many guys with short haircuts and accents? (Part 2: Dual Citizenship Athletes): 

THN (17 Jul 2011): Partille Cup: How can USA Team Handball best maximize this opportunity?

THN (7 Aug 2011): Embarrassing outcome for PanAmerica in Junior Championship:

PATHF Statutes, Regulations and Tribunal

more competition, better communication and increased discipline are key objectives for the PATHF


During the recent Congress of the PanAmerican Team Handball Federation, some important changes were made in the Statutes and in the Competition Regulations (in addition to the Competition System, as previously reported). Similarly, it was decided to introduce Regulation, including a Disciplinary and Ethics Tribunal.

The key change in the Statutes amounted to a clear separation between the function of the Executive Committee and the Council. The Executive Committee now has only five members and is set up to be able to function in a true executive capacity with frequent meetings and communications, especially regarding operational matters. The Council, which includes the Executive members, 4 Vice-Presidents elected by the four regions, the Representative to the IHF Council, and the Presidents of the Commission for Organizing and Competition and the Commission for Rules and Refereeing. The Council will have more of role in policy matters, and it also ensures a wide representation of all parts of the Continent. In addition, an Office attached to the President, with a General Manager, should be able to ensure a major improvement in communications related to competitions and other operational matters.

The Competition Regulations also were firmed up on some points. It is now clear that the member federations can count on as many as 10 participants in each PanAmerican Championship. (The PanAmerican Games are beyond the control of the PATHF and have their own rules on this point). This means that federations cannot push for a larger number for a specific event, nor do they run the risk that an organizer declines to handle this size. It is a different matter that for the junior and youth categories we might conceivably find that there are sometimes less than 10 teams entered.

Strong emphasis has been added to provisions under which federations register teams for a PanAmerican competition. The deadlines are now firm, and there are strong penalties for late withdrawal or non-appearance, as this generally causes great problems and wasted resources for both organizers and other participants. It was also decided that, in an effort to encourage a broader spectrum of member federations to volunteer as organizers, the organizers will now be able to charge up to US$30 per person and day to cover food and lodging. Previously this was supposed to be covered through the participation fees.

Finally, on the basis of the negative experience with the handling of disciplinary matters in the absence of a solid regulation, and therefore with a risk of inconsistencies in decisions and procedural flaws, it was agreed that the PATHF must establish formal and comprehensive regulations. These will cover violence, misconduct and other offenses related to games and competitions, but also administrative violations in the relations of member federations with the PATHF and regarding their obligations in the area of competition. There will also be a separate segment focusing on ethical conduct and possible violations. The key body in this area is the independent Disciplinary and Ethics Tribunal. During the course of a competition, there will the traditional ‘Disciplinary Committee’ as the first level, typically with a member of the Tribunal serving as ‘Jury’ in the case of appeals. For situations outside competitions, the Tribunal is the first and the last entity to handle reports of violations. Its decisions will then be without scope for appeal.

New competition/qualifying system in PanAmerica

for the entire group to improve and succeed: the stronger ones need to help the others to join them at the top!


One of the main topics during the PATHF Congress was the discussion of a new system for the qualifying to the PanAmerican Championships in the different categories (men, women, juniors and youth). If one goes back to the ‘old days’ it was simpler. There were essentially only five member nations down in the ‘cone’ of South America, the Central America rarely participated outside their region, Mexico and Puerto Rico were regulars, with Cuba joining on a capricious basis, and then we had USA and Canada before Greenland joined the fun. So a major qualification system was not really needed, and the main Championship was THE regular competition.

But now the irony is that there are more interested participants and nevertheless less competition opportunities for them. Most of the other South Americans have become active, the Dominican Republic is a force to be reckoned with, and the Central Americans want to measure themselves against their more advanced colleagues. However, the size of the continent and the lack of resources on the part of most federations create a dilemma. If you need to travel from North to South in the qualifying process and are successful, then you soon need the money to travel again to the main Championship, perhaps again in the South. So imagine that you then try to go back to government, sponsors and player families and find the money if you actually get a slot in the World Championship in another continent!

For some short period, the idea was to create a ‘second division’, as a way of eliminating qualification tournaments. This meant that the only duplication of events was for those who moved up from one level to the next for the coming year. But this concept did not work out, because it put teams from all over the continent together in the ‘second division’, and who would find it easy to obtain the funding for long-distance travel in something that was not even a meaningful Championship.

So in connection with Mario Moccia taking over as a President, the emerging new proposal was now to return to a regional qualifying concept, BUT with the difference that the focus should not just be on the qualifying but on what the regional events could –and needed to – do in terms of ‘forcing’ more regular competition among neighbors, especially among those of approximately equal strength. There was general agreement that such tournaments, which might also spur additional competition in between the qualifying events, are absolutely necessary to raise the standards for both individual countries and the continent as a whole. With rare exceptions, the ‘number 3 and 4′ teams from the continent have been doing very poorly when getting their opportunities in various World Championships, and no clear trend for improvements has been seen.

So the idea now is that 10 teams should be allowed for each PanAmerican Championship, assuming of course that in the younger age groups you actually get that many teams interested in participating. The slots should then be distributed in a standardized way among three regions: the South, where Chile and Uruguay have been responsible for much of the progress in recent time, would get FIVE slots. This means that the ‘big four’ (ARG, BRA, CHI, URU) would often qualify but that there would always be room for at least one team from among the newer ones, where for instance Venezuela has come on strong. ONE slot would be set aside, as some kind of development tool or motivation, for the six Central American countries to fight about in their regional events, as they would otherwise never have much of a chance to get to the Championship.

This leaves FOUR slots for a rather evenly matched group of seven member federations: CAN, GRL and USA from the North, and CUB, DOM, MEX and PUR from the Caribbean. So the three North teams now have to ‘mix it up’ with some other teams instead of just doing the qualifying among themselves. This could be a really interesting group, often with a real struggle to avoid being left out from the subsequent championship. Much will depend on the resources that GRL and CUB may or may not have in order to participate in the lower age groups, for GRL due to travel expenses and for CUB due to internal politics. I suspect all these 7 member federations are a bit apprehensive about the implications of this approach. It really makes them have to weigh the advantages of more frequent and intensive competition against the risks that too many of the others will turn out to be stronger.

It should be noted that the system above applies only to the process leading to the PanAmerican Championships; the system for the quadrennial PanAmerican GAMES, which is controlled by the continent’s Olympic organizations and not by PATHF, remains unaffected, and only eight teams will qualify for the men’s and women’s competitions in Toronto 2015.
Finally, increased competition of good quality and between teams of about equal strength sounds really exciting. But this will highlight another current weakness: the standard and the quantity of the top level referees in the continent have gone downhill in recent time. So as there now will suddenly be increased demands, there is a major challenge for the new Referee Chief, Salvio Sedrez, to move quickly to strengthen the troops. On the other hand, for the longer term, if one has some patience, the intensified competition level should also in itself help improve the refereeing, as it provides the necessary basis for growth.

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