This past summer I began hearing rumors of a possible split to the Pan American Handball Federation (PHF). A couple of postings on the PHF website have indeed confirmed that the rumors are true and I’ve now seen an outline of the actual proposal. Surprisingly, the proposal actually came from the IHF as opposed to a PHF member nation.
For reference, here’s an overview of the current PHF nations and qualification paths: Link
Detailed Map of PHF Handball Nations: Link
The proposed IHF split would do the following:
- Split the PHF into two separate federations: A North America and Caribbean Federation and a South America and Central America Federation. So, unlike soccer it would be a CONCA and not a CONCACAF.
- For Jr and Youth World Championships the North/Caribbean would receive 1 qualification slot and the South/Central would be awarded 3 slots just like Asia, Africa and Europe. The new North/Caribbean slot for the Jr WC would come at the expense of the reigning Youth Champion and the new Youth WC slot would come at the expense 2nd best continent at the preceding Youth WC. So, in practical terms the new North/Caribbean slots would likely mean that Europe would lose 1 of their ~12 slots for Junior WC and that Africa, Asia, or South America would lose a bonus slot for the Youth WC.
- For Sr World Championships the IHF borrows a bit from FIFA World Qualification formats and essentially gives the North/Caribbean a ½ slot and gives South/Central America 2 ½ slots. With the ½ slots being decided by a playoff between the North/Caribbean Champion and the South/Central 3rd place team.
- For the Olympics the IHF proposal only states that “the qualification process for the Olympic Games shall be discussed later.”
The IHF listed several rationales for this proposed split to include
- Improved organization as each Federation would be focused on serving fewer nations
- Cost savings particularly due to smaller travel distances
- Greater participation from nations that currently don’t have a realistic chance of making the PHF or IHF championship events
- Opportunities for beach handball growth in the Caribbean
Assessing the Pros and Cons
There’s certainly some positive aspects to this proposal along with some shortcomings. Here’s an assessment of the Pros and Cons
Cost Savings: If this proposal were to be approved there would be some significant cost savings in travel. Here’s some back of the envelope calculations based on a sampling of flights from Atlanta to different destinations. In broad terms travel to cities like Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires is twice as expensive as it is to go to the Caribbean, Canada or Mexico. Around $600/person cheaper per flight. If a team contingent is 18 and a Federation makes an average of 1.5 North to South (or vice versa) trips a year that’s $16,200 in costs that would disappear. Right now there are about 12 active Federations in the PHF so that would be $194,400 in total savings/year. And, if one does a simple x10 calculation that would be $1.94 million dollars over a decade. Admittedly that’s some very rough analysis, but while we could argue about the numbers, there’s no denying this would save a lot of money over the long term. A lot of money for resourced starved nations that could then be spent on development instead of airline travel.
Greater Participation: Directly tied to the cost savings is the possibility that more nations would participate in more events. Somewhat established nations like the U.S., Canada and Mexico would be more likely to participate in Jr and Youth events. Less established nations in the Caribbean and South America might see an upsurge in participation as well.
Independence Would Eliminate Issues of Fairness: I was really pleased with recent PHF developments to award Greenland the Men’s Sr PHF Championships and the U.S. the Beach Championships. But, I also remember some major injustices meted out by our friends in the South. Not trivial little things either. Canadian Handball was on the verge of a renaissance a decade ago when they qualified and participated in the 2005 WC, but due to arcane rules they weren’t even allowed to participate in WC qualification in 2006. And, then Greenland was demoted to Associated Membership after they went to the WC in 2007. The U.S. might very well have qualified for the 2007 PANAM Games if the 2nd chance tournament hadn’t been moved at the last minute from Puerto Rico to Chile. Yes, these events were a decade ago, but I’ve got a long memory. Of course, there are bound to be conflicts within any organization, but given the distances between the North and the South I suspect key decisions in the future will continue to gravitate towards a north/south split in opinion. I also like to think the level of disagreement won’t reach the heights that it did a decade ago, but make no mistake there will continue to be contentious issues.
No Major Change to the WC Slot Status Quo: For all practical purposes while the North is being short changed on WC slot allotment it wouldn’t result in much change to the current status quo. In some respects it’s even better for the North as several times we’ve failed to send any team to the World Jr or Youth Championships either because we didn’t place high enough or failed to send any team at all. And, for last 5 Sr tournaments the North for the most part has missed out on the semifinals and the opportunity to play for 3rd place and the last WC slot. (Cuba and Puerto Rican Women in 2015 being the exception). Under this format the North champion would be guaranteed a chance to qualify for the 3rd slot. Further this playoff could even be a marketable event.
The Oceania Treatment: While it’s true there’s no change to the current status quo, if one looks at this proposal from a WC slot allocation perspective, the proposed North/Caribbean Federation is pretty much being treated as another Oceania. Nothing against our friends from the Pacific, but give us a little respect will ya? The U.S. has been in a downward cycle for the past 20 years, but with an Olympics we will surely improve. The Greenland men knocked off Argentina at the 2016 PHF Championship. Cuba has several pros playing in Europe and when properly resourced they can be very competitive. This split should come with more WC slots or at the very least there should be some clear benchmarks given to the North/Caribbean Federation as to how those slots can be increased. And, really how many European teams do we need at the World Championships? Yes, maybe one of the performance slots should be given to the North/Caribbean champion.
Weaker Competitions: Splitting into 2 Federations will mean that each competition will be weaker. In particular, the teams from the North will no longer get the experience of playing the Brazilian Women and the Brazilian and Argentine Men. While matches against those sides have recently been blowouts it’s still very beneficial for weaker nations to get a yardstick as to where they stand against top competition. And, even the South tourney will be degraded with sides like Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay missing out on matches against peer nations like Greenland, the U.S. and Canada.
The 8 Nation Rule: Underlying possible concerns with this split is a recent IHF competition rules requirement for federations to have at least 8 nations participating in World Championship Qualification events. While Pan America may have around 30 full and associate members, the level of participation varies dramatically. Perhaps around a dozen nations have fairly active programs, regularly participating in Sr events and to varying degrees Jr and Youth events. Then there are around 6 nations that are somewhat established and sporadically play in qualifying events. And, finally there around a dozen nations in Central America and Caribbean that are really fledgling nations. I think for some of them the IHF Trophy tournament just this past year was their very first official competition.
So what does all of this mean? Well right now the PHF can easily meet the 8 nation rule for Sr events, but doing so relies on participation from the established nations from both the North and the South. The South could probably meet the 8 nation requirement independently, but it would need to coax nations like Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Central America nations into participating to ensure that it’s met. And, doing so for Jr and Youth events would be even more challenging. The North/Caribbean Federation would have even a harder time coaxing the fledgling nations of the Caribbean to participate. Perhaps there could be a Caribbean championship and also maybe the French Departments of Guadaloupe and Martinique could participate. (Side note: Trinidad & Tobago is one of the fledgling nations. Will some future USA National Team have to travel to Port of Spain to ignominiously go down in defeat in a handball WC qualifier?)
While it’s true that the shorter distances might allow greater participation both of the new Federations might find themselves short of numbers and accordingly losing their WC slots. Perhaps the IHF will provide a grace period for growth requirements.
So there’s a rundown on the pros and cons, as I see it. But, what about the PHF nations and the IHF as a whole. What do they think about the proposal? In Part 2, I’ll take a closer look at the history of Pan American Handball and the politics behind this proposal.