No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball. One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now. I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half. In this commentary I highlight how many in the U.S. have a narrow view of the sport and don’t fully understand how the sport is professionalized in Europe
What’s the Bundesliga?
Time for another war story that might give you further insight as to why some folks in the U.S. actually believe a Residency Program can develop a national team capable of competing on the world stage.
The scene: February, 1993. The USA Men’s National Team is reviewing the tape of their match played the day before against Finland. The U.S. was conducting a training camp in Finland in preparation for the upcoming World Championships in Sweden. Finland has only ever qualified for one World Championship, back in 1958 and is considered a 2nd or 3rd tier nation. (i.e., in theory, a team the U.S. should be able to beat. U.S. National Team coach, Vojtech Mares, a former all-world player from the Czech Republic is savaging the team’s performance, a 30-22 loss.
Personally, I hadn’t played very well and that’s because I had to play defense against, Finland’s best player, Mikael Kallman. As we watched the film I got to relive him beating me and the rest of my teammates leftwards, backwards and forwards for 11 goals. Quite simply he had a combination of speed and power that I had never seen before.
In the 2nd half we were making a bit of a comeback and Finland needed a goal to stifle our momentum. Kallman, who had been playing left back, moved to center back and spoke to the backs on either side of him. I don’t know the Finnish words for “clear out”, but they had clearly been said as both backs shaded to the side to give him a bit more room to work against the slow American.
And, as Kallman started his move from 12 meters or so, I crouched down as probably as determined as I’ve ever been to stop someone 1 on 1 defensively. No swim move on me this time. I’m staying in front of him and by God, he’s going to get hit hard. But, this time Kallman did something I’d never seen before. He came toward me as usual, but instead of picking a direction to beat the slow American, he stopped at about 10 meters, jumped straight up off of both feet, cocked his throwing arm and threw a bee-bee into the upper corner of the net.
At which point, Coach stopped the tape and rewound to the point where he released the ball. There right in front of Kallman was me, crouched ready to stop him in either direction only now just realizing Kallman was instead going to shoot. My lanky arms were only just starting to rise for a shot block. Coach continued the sequence in slow motion and my reaction speed was comical. It was if a high school baseball player was batting against a 100 mph fast baller and started swinging the bat only after the ball was already in the catcher’s glove.
Coach looked at me and said, “John, what were you thinking?”
I started to respond, “Coach, that guy is really good and I wasn’t going to…”
Coach Mares, exasperated, cut me off, “Of course he’s good. He’s the MVP of the Bundesliga.”
To which, I replied, “What’s the Bundesliga?”
Coach, then just through his hands up in the air as if to say, “What I’m doing here with these Americans” and “Oh, this is just hopeless.”
Really, I’m sure to Coach Mares I pretty much sounded like Libertarian Presidential Candidate, Gary Johnson, when he asked, “What is Aleppo?”
Ignorance is Bliss
So, I’ll defend my ignorance a bit. This was 1993, pre-wide spread use of the internet. There was no handball on TV. Heck, there was no European sport of any kind being shown on TV. I had never ever heard the word, “Bundesliga” before, let alone did I even know it was a German word. We were playing in Finland after all. I had no concept of how sports were organized in Europe. Handball wise, I had some vague notion that there were handball clubs in Europe, but simply thought that they were just more organized versions of what we had in the U.S. Heck, I even assumed that European national teams had residency programs similar to ours. All really bad assumptions, that, but understandable given my total lack of exposure to any handball outside of an American context.
Of course, I can look back now and laugh at how totally clueless I was. Kallman was the best player ever for Finland and had indeed been the MVP of the Bundesliga the year before. The first non-German to win that award and only one of three Non-Germans to ever win it (the others are Nikola Karabatic and Filip Jicha). I’d say he was in good company. (For a pretty good example of his effectiveness check out this video from the 1993 EHF Club cup: Link. He’s number 3 in blue. At the 22:40 minute mark on the tape you can see him draw a two minute after he goes by 2 defenders. And, then at 23:25 mark is the jump stop shot that made me look foolish. At least I made him shoot a little further out. I don’t feel so bad now…)
Regarding the Bundesliga, I’m now such a fan that I relish watching that league more than the Champions League, which really only gets interesting in the knock out stages. Heck, I’ll go further. A good HBL match, in my opinion beats an Olympic match. Much the same way an NBA playoff game beats Olympic basketball.
But, all of my greater understanding and appreciation for professional club handball can mostly be attributed to the happenstance of living in Europe for five years and following the sport very closely ever since. In fact, I suspect if that hadn’t ever lived overseas, I would be more supportive of a residency program because quite frankly, I wouldn’t know any better. Ignorance is bliss…
Ignorance is also Dangerous to Long Term Strategic Planning
Flash forward to today and the internet abounds with lots of information regarding professional club handball. EHF Champions League matches can be watched at ehfTV.com and it’s fairly easy to research your would be competition. One would think that it would be nearly impossible for an American to be as clueless as I was 23 years ago. But, trust me the average American is pretty clueless when it comes to professional club handball in Europe and the impact it has on today’s game. How big it is. How professionalized it has become. How, it is the principle training ground for virtually all of the world’s top handball players. And, this might seem shocking, but it’s even largely true for the few Americans that actually care about the sport in this country. Their context is the clubs in the U.S., the U.S. national team and the Olympics every four years.
But, what will really having you scratching your head is this: It’s even true of some USA Team Handball Board Members, National Team players and other key players in the USA Team Handball community. I guarantee you that some if asked could not name one of the top clubs in Europe. Couldn’t tell you which nations have the top leagues or when the club season begins and ends in Europe. Couldn’t even begin to tell you what the relative strengths are between national leagues or what it means to play in the 2nd division in Germany vs the 2nd division in Poland. For sure, in some respects, such information could be considered trivial. (Here’s a primer on European Club Handball: Link)
But, this overall lack of knowledge or full appreciation of European professional club handball has real consequences in that it enables smart people to think that a Residency Program is a feasible strategy. Because if you think that handball in Europe is amateur or perhaps just somewhat professionalized it is somewhat reasonable to think that a group of determined and athletic Americans can rise up from rural Alabama and shock the world.
Of course, I can’t say for sure what the key decision makers know as it relates to the professionalism of the sport in Europe. These decision makers have varied backgrounds and experiences. Something tells me, though, that these decision makers have an impression that handball is just “somewhat professionalized” and nothing on par with American professional leagues. I’m thinking a bit of education and exposure to what’s going on in Europe at the club level would result in some fresh perspectives and a change in direction.
“Somewhat professionalized?” What does that phrase mean or imply? In the next part of this series I’ll elaborate and explain how since the 80s and 90s the professionalization of the sport has resulted in amateur teams falling further behind.