Preview of the 2017 Handball WC Semifinals:  A French Coronation?

World Championships Final Four:  A French Coronation in Paris?

World Championships Final Four: A French Coronation in Paris?

The Perils of Prediction

Well, let’s just say the Round of 16 and quarterfinals did not go as I expected.  In particular, Denmark’s and Germany’s departure at the hands of Hungary and Qatar busted my bracket pretty badly.  Qatar relied heavily on Capote and Saric and got just enough support from their supporting cast to send and a disorganized German attack packing.  Hungary got Nagy back, but it was the Dane’s lackluster performance was more to blame for their departure.  Finally, Spain survived a scare from Brazil only to be done in by a more determined Croatian squad.  So, of my final 4 only France (no big surprise) has survived.

All told, if one looks at the opening odds it’s a surprising final four. Here are those odds for the 4 remaining teams to win the championship and finish in the top 3

France: 1 to 1; 1 to 5
Croatia: 12 to 1; 9 to 4
Slovenia: 30 to 1; 11 to 2
Norway: 40 to 1; 8 to 1

A French Coronation?

Now, here’s the updated odds to win it all:

France: 5 to 12
Croatia: 5.5 to 1
Slovenia: 12 to 1
Norway: 4.5 to 1

In simple terms, or if you prefer percentages (like the website calculates) France should win this tournament about 70% of the time.  So, France is clearly a pretty big favorite.  That being said, here’s a case for each of the other sides to knock out France.

Slovenia lacks star power, but plays very well collectively. The players know their roles and they don’t try to do too much individually.  Several of the players have either played or are currently playing professionally in France.  They know the French players, know that man for man the French are better, but they also know their limitations.  If Slovenia can keep France from running off one of their typical 5 goal scoring blitzes, Slovenia can win a close game in the closing minutes through smart play.  The key, though, will be keeping in contact and not letting the game get out of hand.

Norway, has been the biggest surprise of the tourney.  Aside from rising start, Sandor Sagosen (headed to Paris SG next season) it’s a collection of no-name players, most of whom play in the Danish league.  Peter Bruun at gives much of the credit for the team’s performance to their coach, Chrisitian Berge: Link.  I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.  Much like Slovenia, Norway plays very well together collectively.  I’m not sure if they have the star power, but I think they can beat Croatia.

Croatia’s chances I think begin and end with the play of Domagoj Duvnak.  The 28 year old Kiel Centerback is the key linchpin in the Croatian attack.  If he plays well, he can shepherd a Croatian side that’s a bit thin in depth and reportedly ailing.  If he plays outworldly maybe they can spring an upset against France in the final.

Could France Beat France?

Ultimately, I think the only team that can beat France, is France themselves.  Clearly they are the best team in the tournament.  None of the other teams can even begin to match their depth at each position.  But, then again France hasn’t been fully tested yet.  Their depth is not as great as it used to be and they’ve got a new coach.  If a game comes down to the wire it’s at least conceivable that the pressure of being the host and expectations could do them in.

Conceivable, but I would have bet on a team like Denmark or Germany as being the side capable of keeping the match close for such a possibility.  And, those sides got bounced in the Round of 16.  My thinking now is that France’s superiority will show its face early on in both the semi and final and result in less than exciting games to watch.  But, if my past predictions are any guide we could be looking at some significantly different outcomes. I guess that’s why games are played on the court, and not on paper.

Preview of the 2017 World Championships Knockout Tourney   

France will be playing their next two matches in Lille. Why not Paris? Well the Stade Pierre-Mauroy can sit 27,000. Should be a new attendance record.

France will be playing their next two matches in Lille. Why not Paris? Well the Stade Pierre-Mauroy can sit 27,000. Should be a new attendance record.

Well, Group Play is over and it’s largely confirmed what I, and others, expected to happen.  There are 4 strong contenders (France, Denmark, Spain and Germany) for the title and they each managed to emerge through Group play unscathed with perfect 5-0 records.  Heck, they only broke a sweat in a couple of matches.  But, now the real competition begins and a 5-0 record means nothing.  One loss against a hot goalie and your tournament is done.

With 16 teams left one can look at the tournament now like a version of the NCAA sweet 16 with 4 regionals taking place with 4 teams each vying for a spot in the final 4 in Paris.  Here’s a breakdown of the four regionals:

Montpellier Regional

Spain (B1) vs Brazil (A4)
Croatia (C2) vs Egypt (D3)

Spain is the heavy favorite here.  Brazil has shown promise at times and could play with Spain for a bit, but inevitably they lose consistency for a spell and find themselves down 4 or 5.  Egypt has the same problem, but will have a better chance against a Croatian side that lacks depth.  Regardless, it’s hard to see Spain not advancing to the Final Four.

Albertville Regional

Denmark (D1) vs Hungary (C4)
Norway (A2) vs Macedonia (B3)

Denmark should emerge from this regional without too much trouble.  Denmark had been looking forward to a freebie match vs Chile, but Hungary’s loss to Belarus means a significantly tougher round of 16 opponent.  Still, Hungary lacks depth and scoring punch from 9 meters with Nagy out.  Macedonia has much the same problem with too much reliance on Lazarov.

Lille Regional

France (A1) vs Iceland (B4)
Sweden (D2) vs Belarus (C3)

Both France and Sweden should coast to easy victories here.  Sweden, in particular, received a gift with Belarus’s upset of Hungary giving them an easier match in the round of 16.  Hard to see a side that lost to Chile beating Sweden in a knockout game.  A really thin Icelandic side without Palmarsson has no chance against France.  It’s also hard to see Sweden knocking off the hosts in a quarterfinal.  Any upset would hinge on an epic performance by Palicka and/or Applegren in goal, plus an uncharacteristically poor performance by Omeyer.  Something I wouldn’t bet on.

Paris Regional

Germany (C1) vs Qatar (D4)
Slovenia (B2) vs Russia (A3)

Germany should have little trouble dispatching Qatar.  Saric can make up for a lot of defensive mistakes, but there’s simply not enough depth in the Qatari squad.  Slovenia should have little trouble with an inconsistent Russian side.  In a potential Germany-Slovenia match I would expect Germany’s defense to wear down Slovenia’s attack.

Preview and Odds for the 2017 Men’s World Championship

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world's dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I'm predicting they'll come up short.

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world’s dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I’m predicting they’ll come up short.

The 2017 Men’s World Championships starts this Wednesday with hosts France taking on Brazil in the opening match.  Here is some analysis and odds courtesy of the online betting site Link 

Odds to win the championship and odds to finish in the top 3

The Usual Suspects  
France                  1/1         1/5
Denmark             4/1         13/20
Spain                    6.5/1      6/5
Germany              8/1         8/5
Croatia                 12/1       9/4

These 5 sides are strong contenders for the title.  As the host France is an even money favorite and at 1/5 to medal they are a virtual lock to make the semifinals.  France would likely be the favorite if the championships were being staged in another country, but it certainly wouldn’t be as overwhelming.  Personally, I think France is the most vulnerable they’ve been in years.  They still are the best side, but they aren’t as deep as they used to be and the old guard is starting to show signs of age.  Perhaps newer players like Mahe and Remili will step up, but that remains to be seen.  And, this side will be under pressure with new coaches (Dinart and Gille) and the expectation that nothing other than gold will suffice.  Denmark, with an Olympic Gold Medal in its possession has the confidence to know that they can beat France as do Spain and Germany.

The Other Guys
Slovenia               30/1       11/2
Norway                40/1       8/1
Qatar                    40/1       8/1
Sweden                40/1       8/1
Hungary               60/1       11/1
Poland                  60/1       11/1
Russia                   60/1       11/1
Iceland                 70/1       13/1

These 8 sides are solid picks to make the round of 16, but making it to the semifinals could probably be considered a solid accomplishment for these 8 teams.

The Outsiders
Brazil                    200/1     30/1
Egypt                    250/1     40/1
Macedonia          250/1     40/1
Argentina            500/1     100/1
Belarus                500/1     100/1
Tunisia                 500/1     100/1
Japan                    1000/1  200/1

These 7 sides will  be looking to make the round of 16.  Advancing to the quarters would hinge on a major upset.  Making the semifinals would be a major achievement.

The Out-Outsiders
Angola                  2000/1  500/1
Bahrain                2000/1  500/1
Chile                     2000/1  500/1
Saudi Arabia       2000/1  500/1

These 4 sides have probably already booked their transportation to Brest and the President’s Cup.

Here a closer look at the odds (in parentheses) to win each group and my prediction as to the Final Standings

Group A
1) France (1/10)
2) Norway (8/1)
3) Brazil (18/1)
4) Poland (25/1)
5) Russia (14/1)
6) Japan (100/1)

I think Brazil will surprise here, taking advantage of a new look Polish roster and an inconsistent Russian team.  They also played well at the Olympics and the past few World Championships.

Group B
1) Spain (2/9)
2) Slovenia (7/2)
3) Tunisia (30/1)
4) Macedonia (20/1)
5) Iceland (15/1)
6) Angola (100/1)

Wael Jallouz and Tunisia will take advantage of the home crowd.  Expect more than a few Tunisian and French citizens of Tunisian descent in attendance.  Jallouz has shown at Barca how he can take over a game.  Expect him to do just that against Macedonia and Iceland.   Iceland might raise a cup at the WC, but minus Aron Palmarsson it may well be the President’s Cup.

Group C
1) Germany (19/20)
2) Croatia (21/20)
3) Hungary (13/2)
4) Belarus (50/1)
5) Chile (300/1)
6) Saudi Arabia (300/1)

I think this Group will simply follow the oddsmaker’s ranking.  Germany’s hard nosed defense will prevail over Croatia and Hungary.  Chile has an outside shot at upsetting Belarus for a round of 16 opportunity.

Group D
1) Denmark (1/7)
2) Sweden (7/1)
3) Egypt (30/1)
4) Argentina (50/1)
5) Qatar (7/1)
6) Bahrain (300/1)

Can Qatar with one of the world’s best coaches and goalkeepers continue their successful runs in international competition?  No, not with their depleted roster of court players.  Egypt and Argentina will pip Qatar and send them to the President’s Cup.

Projecting the Semifinals and Champion

A lot of handball will be played over the next 10 days so predictions at this point are real hazardous.  Still I’ll go out on a limb and project that France will come up short in it’s quest for a 5th title.  Followers of this website will note that this is quite a departure for me as I have consistently picked France to win every title for the past 10 years or so.  Not that was exceedingly brave.  As I declared over and over, if you have the best GK (Omeyer), best court player (Karabatic) and best defender (Dinart) you should win.  Throw in Narcisse, Fernandez and Abalo as a supporting cast and it was an embarrassment of riches.  But, father time is starting to kick in.  Dinart is now coach, Omeyer is 40 and Karabatic at 32 is starting to seem more human on the court.  Why Hansen and Duvnjak might even be better now.  Maybe the new supporting cast will step up, but I’ve got my doubts.  Maybe the home court advantage will give the old guard one more title, but again I’ve got my doubts.

Right now I’ll project Germany giving coach Sigurdsson a parting gift victory over France in the semifinals and Denmark knocking off Spain in the other. Then Denmark topping Germany in the Final.


Podcast: New Handball Rules (Part 2)

I know what you are thinking regarding whether I’m going to call passive play: Do you have to shoot on goal yet? Have you made 5 passes or 6?  Do you feel lucky? Do ya, punk?

I know what you are thinking regarding whether I’m going to call passive play: Do you have to shoot on goal yet? Have you made 5 passes or 6? Do you feel lucky? Do ya, punk?

My discussion with Christer Ahl, the former IHF head for Playing Rules and Competition, continues.  In part 2 we discuss the new rules regarding passive play, the last 30 seconds of a match and blue cards

Point-Counter Point on Handball’s Last Minute Problem from 2009 (Or why I was so gleeful at Christer’s mea culpa)

Part 1: John: Time to add a technical penalty shot: Link
Part 2: Christer: John has good intentions, but gets his solutions from the wrong sources: Link
Part 3: John: No, Christer, post game sanctions are not working and referees should be empowered and trusted: Link

It’s not very often (heck, this might be the only time) that I’ve gotten Christer to side with me.  There’s a reason for this: He knows handball rules about 10 times better than I do.  But, every dog has his day

If the Dirty Harry reference has no meaning to you, here’s a link to the classic scene: Link


Podcast: New Handball Rules (Part 1)

Irina Bliznova penetrates opposing defenses on a regular basis and gets fouled a lot. Against S Korea on day 1 she was fouled fairly hard, but chose to get back on her feet quickly. Why? I'm thinking the new rules had something to do with it.

Irina Bliznova penetrates opposing defenses on a regular basis and gets fouled a lot. Against S Korea on day 1 she was fouled fairly hard and started to relax and recover a bit on the floor, but then chose to get back on her feet quickly. Why? I’m thinking the new rules had something to do with it.

The International Handball Federation (IHF) has recently added 5 new rule changes and the Olympics is the first major event to see them implemented.  And, while at its core the game remains the same these rule changes are having an impact.  The ability to now substitute any court player for the goalie has resulted in goalies being pulled even more.  Why, it’s practically standard practice for some teams when they are a man down.  We’ve even seen a few instances of 7 court players being used on offense.

The rule change requiring injured players to exit for three possessions has also sped up the game.  Irina Bliznova went down after being hit fairly hard during Russia’s comeback vs S. Korea.  But, it wasn’t a 2 minute and when it looked like the refs might call for medical protection she hopped to her feet quickly.  With Russia’s offense really relying on her steady play in the backcourt she didn’t want to nurse her minor injury on the sideline for a couple of minutes.

There’s a lot of nuance to these rule changes, and who better to explain and discuss their potential impact then Christer Ahl, the former IHF head for Playing Rules and Competition.  In part 1 of this podcast Christer highlights the overall intentions behind these rules and we delve into the details of the new rules as they relate to goalkeepers and injured players.

Summary of new rules: Link


IHF and Qatar ruin the big event

Qatari Referee Saleh Jamaan Bamurtef issues a yellow card warning against Croatia.   Officiating was inconsistent to say the least in Qatar.

Qatari Referee Saleh Jamaan Bamurtef issues a yellow card warning against Croatia. Officiating was inconsistent to say the least in Qatar.

Former chair of the IHF Playing Rules and Referees (PRC) Commission, Christer Ahl, takes the IHF and Qatar to task for inconsistent officiating and unfair advantages for the host nation.

This should have been the exciting, biennial competition, where all the focus would be on the star players and the entertainment and excitement they are able to offer.   There would be an expectation of fair play and evenhanded refereeing, in the spirit of ‘let the best team win!’ But this time, the IHF and the Qatari host conspired in various ways, so that the focus instead was on the mercenaries of what purported to be a Qatari national team, the many advantages they obtained, and the totally inconsistent refereeing which often was the deciding factor in key games.

Can everything be bought?

It all started in 2011, when to the surprise of many, the IHF Council decided to award the hosting of the 2015 event to Qatar.   Especially against the background of the more publicized affairs around the awarding of the 2022 football World Cup to Qatar, there have also been many suspicions and accusations surrounding the IHF decision for handball. It is ironic that the country favored to be awarded this event in 2015 was precisely France, the opponents of Qatar in the final, who now had to deal with the extra burden of being up against the home team and all that this implies.

But the main topic for many observers was that Qatar had imported eleven players to fill all the key positions on their team, taking advantage of their own rules for awarding ‘half citizenship’ in Qatar, in combination with the very lenient rules of the IHF regarding changes in citizenship. (By contrast, FIFA has much stricter rules in football). We find it normal that wealthy club teams use their resources to acquire the best players in the world, but we have come to expect, until now, that national teams are genuine national teams.

Another aspect, unrelated to the Qatari team that instead became a problem for many other teams in important games, were the incredible nominations given to the incompetent Qatari referees. They were allowed to ruin several important games, and in one game the clearly affected the result, unfairly preventing Brazil from getting a sensational win against Croatia in the ‘round of 16’. It is difficult to imagine that the iHF Referee Chief was so oblivious to this problem, so one must assume that the instructions must have ‘come down from above’.

Referees under pressure

With their imported team, it was no surprise that Qatar advanced from the group stage to the elimination matches.   And here it soon began to look as if the path towards a possible final was being paved for the home team. It was conspicuous that all the referee couples who have a reputation for being particularly capable of standing up to pressure were kept away from the games of Qatar in the ‘round of 16’, the quarterfinal and the semifinal. And in all cases, ‘less resistant’ referees were seen by neutral observers as having had a lot to do with the Qatari wins in very narrow games. In turn, Austria, Germany and Poland left the court fuming about mysterious decisions in critical moments, and also totally neutral observers found it to be a bit too much.

During my own time as the person ultimately responsible for the refereeing and the fair play on the court in IHF events, I am only too familiar with the situation.   In 2007 in Germany, the IHF somehow seemed to ‘owe’ the gold medals to the host country, and many aspects were set up to favor the hosts. This included the situation in the quarterfinal and semifinal, where all tickets had been sold to German fans, and where IHF bosses even prevented me and my colleagues from taking warranted action against the home team. At least we tried to offset the pressure by assigning referees who were known to be courageous, but not even that helped. And in 2009, when the Croatian home team lost the final against France, I received threats for having assigned referees who were known to stay neutral and resistant. Here in Qatar, amazingly the situation was instead exacerbated through questionable nominations.

Irresponsible changes in rules interpretations and instructions

Many handball fans who follow European top level competition are likely to agree that the intentions of the 2010 rule book to clamp down on cynical and dangerous action have never really been realized. The IHF and the EHF have not been willing or able to insist on a closer adherence to the spirit of the rules, so the cynicism and dirty tricks have flourished.   Therefore, I applaud the intentions of the IHF, as discussed and agreed in a conference of all stakeholders, including top coaches, a few months ago, to make a more concerted effort in the context of the next set of rules changes and instructions.

But, what the IHF president then suddenly decided, was totally crazy and irresponsible! The IHF Referee Commission and Coaching Commission were ordered to implement new, stricter interpretations with immediate effect in Qatar.   Moreover, this was done without any forewarning to the team, who normally would be fully informed about major changes 6-12 months ahead of time in order to be able to adapt and prepare. Instead, they got a brief explanation the day before the event started….! No wonder that media around the world have been filled with shocked reports from the flood of punishments given out to unsuspecting players and teams, who cannot understand what has happened.

However, it seems that one specific team, namely Qatar, must have been extremely well informed about the new, stricter rules interpretation and completely ready to adjust to it, so that they actually deserved by far many fewer punishments than all the other teams. Because it is not very pleasant to think of other possible explanations as to why the referees, in game after game, found very few reasons to give 2-minute suspensions against Qatar…

The referees put in an impossible position

Clearly, a sudden adaptation to new standards would have been difficult for the referees even if the team had been prepared and ready to cooperate. But now the referees were caught between protesting teams and an awareness that if they did not follow instructions, they would risk being sent home after the group stage.   Some referees handle this kind of adaptation and pressure better than others, but it is clear that inconsistencies are likely to arise both during matches and from one match to another.   Some referees got carried away, taking too tough a line in a not very rough match, while others fell back into their habits of recent years.

What is worse is that uncertainties around a new interpretation always serve to increase the scope for biases and one-sided treatment of teams. In other worse, there are more ‘opportunities’ for referees to fall for the pressures that I discussed above, simply because the number of ‘marginal’ decisions will increase.   Moreover, if the teams did not always manage, or want, to adapt to the new interpretations, it seems that they quickly saw an opportunity to gain unfair advantages instead. What I mean is that if the player knows that the referees will be more ready to punish conspicuous fouls, then they will resort to ‘theater’ and exaggerate the impact of a foul or even ‘nicely’ fall to the floor at the slightest touch.

Unfortunately it appears that the massive confusion and criticism was too much for the IHF leaders to handle in a level-headed and constructive way.   Horror stories about abusive criticism and confused feedback for the referees are floating around. And now, even before the event finished, my successor as IHF Referee Chief, who had my support when I was ‘exiled’ in 2009, has given a shocking interview in the main German handball web site:  Link

Essentially, he sees himself as blameless and instead declares half of the referee groups as idiots who are not talented and smart enough to understand their instructions.   So he states that they will be kicked out. These are the words from the person responsible for rules interpretations in recent years and for selecting the referees for Qatar. So if you want to blame the referees for some of the things you saw, perhaps you need to look elsewhere.   The behavior and attitude of the IHF president appears to be contagious! I can only feel sorry for the top referees who are asked to do a very demanding job.

Some conclusions

With all the problems indicated above, like the rules permitting ‘mercenary teams’, and the deliberate incompetence on the part of many IHF leaders, added to the scandalous process involving teams kicked out (Australia), given free places in the event (Germany, Iceland and Saudi Arabia), or inexplicably overlooked as candidates for available places (Hungary and Serbia), one wonders whether there is any basis for taking IHF’s ‘World Championships’ seriously any longer. (As you may have noticed, this is the only time that I have even used that label in this text).

Perhaps the time has come to eliminate these events, as they have lost their integrity. Perhaps it is better to let the individual continents arrange championships for national teams, including qualifications for the Olympic Games, and otherwise simply continents and nations concentrate on competitions for club teams, where there is no pretense that nationality matters. In that case, perhaps the time has also come to eliminate the IHF, because beyond the task of organizing fictitious championships the IHF does not really do much to justify its existence!


IHF Updates Competition Regulation to Make Australian-Like Removals Standard Practice


Australia had the rug pulled out from them for the 2015 WC.  Who's next?:  Asia, Pan America or Africa?

Australia had the rug pulled out from them for the 2015 WC. Who’s next?: Asia, Pan America or Africa?

On the heels of its, after the fact  and arbitrary action to remove Australia from the 2015 Men’s World Handball Championships, the IHF now appears to have revised its regulations to make future moves clearly legal.   I’m not sure when the new Competition Regulation was posted on the IHF website, but it was first brought to my attention by this article at Mundo Handball.

The section of the revised regulation which should draw the attention of every developing handball nation is Section 2.3 which reads in part”

To participate in IHF World Championships a certain performance level of the qualified team is obligatory. In case the competitive capability of a qualified team is disputable and the difference in performance level between the country in question and the other teams qualified for the WCh is too large, the IHF Council reserves the right to re-award this place to a country meeting the corresponding competitive requirements in order to strengthen and protect the IHF World Championship product. In such cases an in-depth analysis has to be carried out by the respective IHF Commissions (COC, CCM) as well as by media and marketing experts to highlight the impact on the media and marketing side. Also the current performance as well as the IHF ranking and the performance in earlier IHF events will be taken into consideration when evaluating the performance level of the respective team. Therefore the IHF bodies will issue performance reports about all participating teams immediately after the end of the respective World Championship.”

It doesn’t take a lawyer to analyze this paragraph and come to the conclusion that this paragraph essentially states the IHF can pretty much take away any qualification spot it wants to.  Breaking it down here’s some of the major problems and ramifications:

The regulation is exceedingly vague as to what the obligated performance level must be.  In other words, if the Australian Men’s side performance level is too low, how much better does it have to be?  Lose by only 15 goals against the top European sides?  10 goals?  Australia was the last and 24th place team at the 2013 WC.  Chile was 23rd, but were they good enough?  Chile’s made some strides, but Iceland, the best European team not participating is still clearly a better team.  How competitive is competitive?

Media and marketing experts have a say:  Speaking of Iceland, it’s a small TV market, but a very focused one.  With their non-qualification for the 2015 WC I bet the TV rights are significantly lower there.  Now, if Iceland were to participate that would probably mean a bump in that price.   Is this then the IHF Council discussion:

IHF President: Let’s see who should take the fall?  Chile?  or maybe Iran, the third place team from Asia?

Asian Rep:  What about Egypt, the third place team from Africa?  Sorry, just joking.

Marketing Rep: Well according to our marketing assessment, the Chilean market is the smallest, so it should be Chile.

IHF President:  Chile, it is.  Send them an email to let them know.

(On a side note, I guess as an American I should like this provision.  If, admittedly a big if, the enormous U.S. market ever showed an interest in the sport we might get a boost in our participation chances.)

This IHF Council decision can be made at anytime.  Which in this hypothetical scenario would mean that Chile or Iran might think they are headed to Qatar, but they could get informed tomorrow they aren’t.    A nation could spend thousands of dollars traveling to participate in qualification to secure a bid only to be told later, “Sorry, Wally World is closed

Continental qualification could become a mystery game.  Future qualification in Pan American, Africa, Asia and Oceania might not hinge on where you place, but what (and how many) European teams (with a big TV market) unexpectedly don’t qualify.  Teams need to now finish in as high as slot as possible.  This is particularly true for the Pan American Woman’s Championships next Summer.  Brazil’s 2013 Championship has resulted in an unprecedented 6 slots going to a continent outside of Europe.  But, after Brazil there’s a drop in talent and without a doubt the lower ranking teams from Pan America are probably not going to fare very well at the 2015 WC.    Just a coincidence that this regulation has recently been updated?

At the very least, the IHF should provide absolute guarantees on at least some of the qualification spots before the tournament takes place.  Otherwise, the victorious teams that win a pivotal placement match will feel a little awkward when they hug each other at center court and celebrate their, “I think we may have qualified” victory.

Elections and Developing Nations

Last I checked the number of IHF member nations in Pan America, Africa, Asia and Oceania far outstrips the total in Europe.  And, yet here is an IHF Council decision which clearly impacts those developing nations.  How does that happen?  Maybe next time around those nations will think about what their votes mean and whose really going to be looking out for their interests.


Handball and Development in Australia: A New Path

The Australian men's team sing the national anthem before facing Spain at the 2013 Men's World Championship in Spain

The Australian men’s team sing the national anthem before facing Spain at the 2013 Men’s World Championship in Spain

Former Australian national team player now journalist Courtney Gahan weighs in on the IHF decision to exclude Oceania from the 2015 World Championship and just how important international competitions like the WC are to developing handball nations like Australia.

The initial shock felt by the athletes, officials and the Australian and Oceania handball communities at large following the IHF’s decision to withdraw Australia from the 2015 Men’s World Championship in Qatar may have lessened, but the decision brings with it potentially far greater long-term consequences for the development of handball in a region that has always been working against the odds – and what happens next will determine the fate of not only all the athletes, coaches, officials and countless other volunteers who have dedicated years to seeing their sport grow, but of the sport itself.

Despite the rather late nature of the action by the IHF, the decision to remove Oceania’s compulsory spot could be seen as a blessing rather than a curse – provided alternatives for the teams in the region are put into place. Now is a crucial time for handball in Oceania, and it is important that the countries in this region have the support and assistance of the IHF in finding the path that will not be an easy or short one, but will likely take handball in the area to a much better place.

As someone who has been involved in Australian handball for many years, in almost every capacity there is – from national representative to coach to helping start a new club, not to mention a sibling now part of the men’s national team, I have a great deal of experience and care deeply about handball in this region. I also have experience with handball in Europe, having played in the region myself and now as a contributor to the EHF media. These two regions are almost complete opposites when it comes to handball, a fact that has helped me gain a unique point of view of the current status and future of handball.

The question of development

Handball is not alone when it comes to the difficult question of development in Australia, Oceania or even the world. Countless team sports are ahead of handball in terms of participation, spectators and even any sort of basic knowledge of the game. Then there are a number of sports that have traditionally experienced more of a fight for participation, funding and recognition – sometimes only facing one of these problems but oftentimes a combination. And handball is one that suffers from all three of these issues in the Oceania region.

Sadly, there is little that can be done to increase handball’s funding in Australia. The Australian Sports Commission allocates funding to each sport based on performance history and immediate potential – essentially, a sport has to be able to prove it has a chance of winning a World Championship or equally challenging equivalent. Anyone familiar with Australia’s handball results will be aware this is not an immediate possibility for our teams, so we must move on to other options if we hope to develop – greater levels of participation to increase the pool of players from which to draw and more development opportunities for our current athletes.

The question of increased participation is, in my mind, linked to exposure. I feel certain the level of handball knowledge possessed by most of the Australian public would shock those that grew up with it – I guarantee any Australian involved in handball would be unable to count the number of times they have had to explain the sport to someone.

It is not that handball has no place in Australia; almost any sport can be successful in any country provided it has the opportunity to grow. There is no doubt handball can be loved and participated in enthusiastically by Australians – and it is, by those that have already been lucky enough to stumble across it.

Experience is key

In the end, the question of exposure and funding comes back to the performance of our current national teams. When we begin to record results, handball will gain exposure in Australia and bring with it more participants. There are many factors that contribute to the success of a sporting team, but I would like to isolate one key difference between the Australian and Oceanic teams in comparison with other nations that perhaps can be helped – international experience.

The statistics make it easy to see the crucial gap here – a significant discrepancy exists in number of international matches between players of different countries, especially those between teams from Europe and teams from Oceania. At the end of the 2013 Men’s World Championship, Australia team captain, Bevan Calvert, had recorded 39 matches in the national team – almost ten years after his national team debut in 2004. At just 28 years of age, Calvert is also one of the most experienced and long-serving on the team, a fact which highlights the excessively high turnover in our national squads, due in large part to funding concerns for our athletes.

Comparing Calvert’s number of games, which far outnumber most of the other members of the national squad, to players of the same age from other nations is telling. Take Croatia’s Marko Kopljar and Hungarian Kornel Nagy as examples. Both are Calvert’s age, but each has played upwards of 90 matches for their country. Kopljar debuted on the senior Croatia team at the end of 2008, which puts his average number of international games per year at 15.5, versus Calvert’s 3.9. Obviously there are other factors to consider here, but the fact remains that the only international experience Australia’s players get before they board the plane to the World Championship, where they face a completely different level of play on court, is at the Oceania Handball Nations Championship.

The other relevant question is how long each Australian player can persist in pursuing this difficult endeavour; funding has already been mentioned as a major concern for many Australian handball players, but there is also no denying the challenging experience our athletes undergo through a World Championship tournament is another contributor, as beneficial and extremely meaningful as this experience obviously is. This has meant the core group of athletes continually changes as players decide, for one reason or another, to leave the team. Such high turnover prevents our teams from travelling through the various stages of development together or gaining a comparable amount of cumulative individual experience.

Minority sports and their development in Australia

It is not only handball in Australia that faces the problem of gaining experience for its athletes. Australia’s geographical situation puts it in a region where its national teams tend to dominate most sports. This has meant that many of our teams have had to either become competitive on the world stage in isolation or find an alternative way to gain the experience their athletes need to develop.

There are a number of team sports where Oceania is granted a direct qualification spot or two for the World Championship or equivalent, including basketball, water polo and field hockey, but these are sports where Australia is already on the world map in terms of rankings and results. It is those that are or once were minority sports, such as baseball, volleyball and football, which had to forge a new path for their athletes to gain experience.

Football was played in Australia for over fifty years before the first successful attempt at qualifying for the World Cup in 1974. Location made continued improvement difficult and following the 1974 World Cup, Australia did not qualify again until Germany hosted in 2006. In the meantime Australia began participating in the FIFA Confederations Cup, a position they achieved as Oceania Champions. This tournament enabled the Australian players to gain significant experience and opportunity for development.

In 2006, Australia left the Oceania Football Confederation to join the Asian Football Federation. Australia has qualified for the two World Cups that have taken place since they joined the AFF, and despite not yet being widely recognised as a footballing nation, have contributed to the impressive fan base for the sport that continues to grow within Australia.

Australian volleyball has travelled a long road to get where they are now also, participating in the Asian Championships since the 1970s and only beginning to qualify for Olympic Games and World Championships around the 2000s. Whilst the Australian volleyball team may not be one of the world’s strongest, they have certainly found the road to development and have recorded some encouraging results along the way – namely when they upset winners of the 2012 World League, Poland, by recording a 3-1 victory at the London Olympics against a nation that is considered one of the strongest in the sport.

Baseball in Australia began to increase in popularity in the late 70s-early 80s thanks to the outside influence of coaches coming from the USA that helped develop the national championship into a highly competitive event. The national team recorded victories here and there, but achieved their first notable success in 1997 with a bronze medal at the Intercontinental Cup followed by the gold medal at the same competition in 1999. Perhaps the national team’s biggest achievement was their silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, but there have also been a number of individual successes that have helped the sport gain interest in Australia and encouraged young players who dreamed of the impossible.

Though each of these stories are different, they draw interesting parallels and their lessons can be extremely beneficial to the potential development of handball in Australia, Oceania and the rest of the world. The most common factor of importance that comes from developing each and every one of these sports is experience – it was only when the national teams and athletes across the country started to gain more experience that Australia began to climb global rankings. No matter which path was taken to gain this experience, another undeniable factor is that the respective organisations received assistance and support from neighbouring federations, international expert coaches or the sport’s global governing body.

It is unfortunate for countries that desire to develop in handball that funding and greater awareness of the sport are of such importance, but surely experience is the one area in which handball federations can work together to give all athletes the opportunity to develop. Playing in more international matches would be invaluable for the Australian players, as it would be for our friends within the region and those countries in other regions that share our hopes and likely are full of the same passionate people we have in Australia.

The most positive outcome of the ‘Qatar incident’ is that it highlights the need for development in minority handball regions. Now is the time to consider how further development in Oceania and across all continents can be achieved. Upon first hearing of the IHF’s decision I admit I was concerned it would prove too discouraging for many within the Australian handball community and the sport might suffer dramatically, but I have been inspired to see each part of the organisation – from the board of the Australian Handball Federation to the athletes, become even more motivated by the possibilities that now lie in front of us. I can only hope our motivation and refusal to be forgotten will lead to opportunity, and that our teams will one day earn their place at the World Championships again.


Oceania Disappears from the IHF’s Atlas

Australian men's team at the 2013 World Championships... Their last appearance?

Australian men’s team at the 2013 World Championships… Their last appearance?

Team Handball News contributor, Altay Atli, addresses the recent IHF decision to retroactively give Australia’s World Championship’s slot to Germany

The recent decision of the International Handball Federation (IHF) to exclude Australia from the upcoming 2015 World Championships in Qatar (despite the fact that it has won the Oceania Handball Nations Cup in April thus officially qualifying for the big event) and replacing it with Germany (which has failed to qualify by losing both play-off games in the European competition against Poland) has drawn significant criticism, and rightfully so. The official statement released by the IHF attempts to justify the decision on the grounds that “There is currently no Continental Confederation in Oceania recognized by the International Handball Federation. Hence, the IHF Council decided to allocate the spot reserved for this continent to another National Federation on the principle of a wild card.”

This is an extremely weak argument and hardly legitimate as it leaves many questions unanswered: If there was a problem with the status of Oceanian handball organization, why was the decision taken after all the continental qualifiers have been completed? If there was no recognized continental confederation in Oceania, how is it possible that Australian teams have been participating in world championships since 1999? Did it take the IHF sixteen years to realize that there is no continental confederation in Oceania? How can one explain to a national federation, which is a member of IHF since 1988, that there is no way for them to go to the world championships even if they win all of the qualifier matches? The IHF’s decision is plain wrong, and agonizingly disappointing, not only for the Australians, but also for the entire world handball community, as it is a serious blow against the efforts to develop handball into a world sport. It seems that Oceania does not appear in IHF’s world atlas any more.

There is, however, another side of the coin; and no matter how wrong IHF’s decision appears to be, we need to think about the rationale behind it. Handball in Oceania is far from being competitive at the world level. Beating New Zealand is usually enough for the Australians to make their way to the world championships; and they do so easily, in April they won the qualification games with 22:18 and 32:18. With all due respect to the efforts of Oceania’s handballers, who work very hard to develop the game in their part of the world, we must accept that it should not be that easy to earn a ticket to the world championships.

This is, of course, not the Australians’ fault; and also, this does not by any means justify the decision to strip the Australia’s handballers from their well-earned right to play in Qatar in 2015. The Australian Handball Federation can see the situation; in its official statement after the IHF decision the governing body of handball in the land down under announced: “We welcome proposals from the IHF in terms of the development of the Oceania region to ensure that our Continent achieves full recognition by the IHF and that a competitive team from Oceania can take its place at the World Championships in the quickest possible time.”

In other words, it is not about giving back Australia its place in Qatar, but about ensuring that Australia (and other Oceanian nations) make a stronger entry into the world stage, playing more games, having the opportunity to improve their capabilities, and achieve progress, so that when Australia or any other team from the region goes to the world championship, it will be “competitive” against the teams from other continents. Australia’s handballers have been training very hard and doing the best they can, but to be honest, their world championship record remains abysmal. For example, the men’s team has participated in all world championships since 1999 (with the exception of 2001), it has played a total of 42 games in seven events, and with the exception of a win against Greenland in 2003, they have lost all their games. The scores do not indicate any progress either. In 1999, the Australian team’s average goal difference was minus 18.2 per game; in 2013 it was minus 26.1. For the women’s team of Australia, the picture is similar. 43 games in six world championships since 1999, lost all games, the average goal difference was minus 18.2 in 1999, rising to 31.3 in 2011, with a relatively successful 2013 event at minus 14.0 per game. In general, the gap is not narrowing, it is widening.

Australians do not want to go to world championships just for the sake of playing there; they want to make progress. The author of this article knows this very well, as he himself played in Australia for two years, supported the women’s team during its preparation phase before the Sydney Olympics, and witnessed how determined and serious Australians are to improve their standing in the handball world. They are currently on unstable ground: they can easily get out of Oceania, but they find it very difficult to compete against other continents. They need a balanced platform, and, in this author’s opinion, it can be achieved by integrating Oceania into the Asian competition for world championship qualifications. Oceanian events can be maintained and improved as this is the venue where progress can be achieved for Pacific island nations, but instead of going directly to the world event, Oceanian winners can be admitted into the Asian qualification round. In this way, they can play more games, gain more experience, and then if they can make their way to the world championships they will be in a more competitive position. In the meantime, efforts to establish a fully fledged and fully recognized Oceanian handball confederation will be helpful for establishing the administrative framework of handball development in the continent.

The IHF’s decision was wrong. It is unacceptable to retroactively strip a team from a right it has legitimately earned. But it is also not sustainable from the perspective of world handball, to have an Oceanian team to make its way to the world championships after winning one or two easy games at a regional competition. The Australian Handball Federation has already made it clear that what they want is a “competitive team from Oceania” to take part at the world stage, and there is no doubt that other national federations agree. It is now the IHF’s turn, to correct its mistake by ensuring that Oceanians can play more matches, in a more adequate competitive environment, so that they can build and improve their own competitive capacity. If we want to turn handball into a world sport, Oceania has to return to the IHF’s world atlas.

For more information check out the ” Give Australian Handball its Rightful Place at Qatar 2015″ Facebook page:  Link


World Championship Final Preview: Can Brazil Tame the Home Crowd?


Serbia’s boisterous home crowd has helped propel them into the Finals. Will the crowd put them over the top one more time against Brazil on Sunday.

Tomorrow’s World Championship final is a refreshing change of pace from the more predictable outcomes in recent years.  While it might not have been surprising for either the home side or the quality Brazilian club to find their way to the final it is truly a surprise for both teams to make it.

Both Serbia and Brazil had an easy time of it in the Semifinals on Friday.  Serbia dispatched Poland 24-18 and Brazil easily handled Denmark 27-21.  In fact, both teams true tests were in the quarterfinals where Serbia staged a furious comeback to defeat the defending Champions Norway, 28-25 and Brazil needed two overtimes to defeat Hungary 33-31.

For the second consecutive time Brazil will need to vanquish a foe they already defeated in Group Play.  Brazil won their earlier meeting and who knew that Group B was so loaded it had 3 of the final 4.  Player for player I think Brazil has the advantage in terms of quality, but the Serbs have an extra player in the boisterous 18,000 fans in the Krombank Arena.  Key, in my opinion will be for the Brazilians to execute and finish their fast break opportunities.  With their quickness advantage there’s a distinct possibility for them to go on one of their patented runs to build up a 3-4 goal lead.  And at that point they may have a chance to take the crowd out of the match.  If they don’t, and let the Serbs stick around, however anything can happen. 

Another factor may be how well a couple of key players shake off their injuries.  Both Brazil’s Ana Rodrigues and Serbia’s Andrea Lekic were injured in the semifinals, but both are expected to play.  The oddsmakers have Brazil pegged as a half goal favorite.

One final side point, Brazil’s victory will mean that 5 Pan American sides will qualify for the 2015 World Championship, giving every handball fan from Tierra del Fuego to Baffin Island reason to cheer for Brazil. 

The match throws off at 1715 CET / 1115 U.S. East Coast and can be viewed for $5.99 at Live Sport TV:  link.

 The Bronze medal match between Denmark and Poland is also available for viewing and starts at 1430 CET / 0830 U.S. Eastern Time.


Danish Flavor for Today’s Semifinals


Danes rule the sidelines today at the Women's World Championshpihs:  Left to Right; Head Coaches Morten Soubak (Brazil), Jan Pytlick (Denmark) and Kim Rasmussen (Poland)

Danes rule the sidelines today at the Women’s World Championshpihs: Left to Right; Head Coaches Morten Soubak (Brazil), Jan Pytlick (Denmark) and Kim Rasmussen (Poland)

A few short notes on today’s semifinal matches at the Women’s World Championships.

Poland vs Serbia, 1800 CET / 1200 U.S. Eastern Time

With the elimination of pre-tournament favorites, Norway, Montenegro and France, the host Serbs are now the top favorite to win the tournament.  They are a 2.5 goals favorite over the surprising Poles that were not in any way seen as title contenders.  In fact, going into the tournament they were 250-1 longshots to win the title, the longest odds of the 12 European participants.  I suspect that Poland’s surprising run will come to an end against the host Serbs.

Brazil vs Denmark 2045 CET/ 1445 U.S. Eastern Time

These two sides met in Group play with Brazil winning comfortably, 23-18.  The oddsmakers foresee a tight contest with Brazil only a .5 goal favorite.  For Denmark, the one time dominant Women’s team on the world stage, this is is a return to the medal round after a drought of 9 year drought of mediocrity.  For Brazil this is the first time ever in the medal round.  For years Brazil had shown they can compete with the top sides in Europe for years, but had struggled to get over the hump in the knockout stages of major tournaments.  The emotion they displayed after their double overtime victory over Hungary showed just how big of a deal it was for them to make it to the semis.   Now that they’ve made it, I think their talent will shine through with a repeat victory over the Danes.

Here are a few articles on today’s semis worth checking out:

Timeout Mag on Danish resurgence:  Link

Timeout Mag on 3 Danish head coaches in the semis:  Link

IHF Preview of Poland-Serbia:  Link

IHF Preview of Brazil-Denmark:  Link

As a reminder today’s semifinal matches and Sunday’s gold and silver medal matches can be watch online at the LiveSport.TV website:  Link  (The subscription price for the remaining matches is $12.99)


2013 Women’s World Championships Preview


No Surprise:  Norway is the team to beat.

No Surprise: Norway is the team to beat.

The Women’s World Championships starts today with host Serbia taking on Japan in the opening match at 1800 CET/ 1200 U.S. Eastern Time.  The format for this year’s tournament is the same as last time with the 24 nations first being divided into 4 groups of 6 for round robin play through next Friday, 13 December.

The top 4 teams from each group will then move on into a 16 team knock out tournament, staring on Sunday, 15 December, culminating in the semifinals on Friday, 20 December and the Finals on Sunday, 20 December.

As a consolation a President’s Cup Tournament will also take place on 15 and 16 December for the 8 teams that place 5th and 6th in their groups and will rank order the teams from 13th to 24th.

Bookmaker Odds to Win the Championship

Here are the odds for each nation to win the Championship according to the sports betting site,, which consolidates odds from multiple online betting sites.

Norway (1.75 to 1)
Montenegro (4.5 to 1)
France (5.5 to 1)
Serbia (12 to 1)
Spain (14 to 1)
Denmark (16 to 1)
Hungary (16 to 1)
Brazil (26 to 1)
Germany (33 to 1)
Romania (33 to 1)
South Korea (33 to 1)
Netherlands (80 to 1)
Czech Republic (200 to 1)
Angola (250 to 1)
Poland (250 to 1)
Tunisia (550 to 1)
Congo (1,000 to 1)
Algeria (1,100 to 1)
China (1,100 to 1)
DR Congo (1,100 to 1)
Japan (1,100 to 1)
Argentina (5,000 to 1)
Australia (5,000 to 1)
Dominican Republic (5,000 to 1)
Paraguay (5,000 to 1)

No real surprise that Norway, the defending 2011 World Champions, the 2012 European Championships runner up and the 2012 Olympic Champions is a strong favorite to retain their world title.  Montenegro which won the 2012 European Championships and was the Olympics runner up is next in line at 4.5 to 1.  As the tournament is being held right next door in Serbia they surely will have many fans on hand for their matches.  Next up is France which is listed at 5.5 to 1.  France was the runner up in 2011, but had a disastrous performance at the 2012 Euros placing in 9th place and a disappointing 5th place Olympic finish.  These results led to the firing of longtime coach Olivier Krumbholz and his replacement with Alain Portes.  Hosts Serbia, Spain, Denmark and Hungary are grouped together as mild longshots at odds from 12-1 to 16-1.  Slightly longer, long shots include Brazil, Romania, Germany and South Korea at 26-1 to 33-1.  From then on, the odds progressively lengthen with none of the remaining nations seen as having a realistic chance.

Rerun Tournament and European Outsiders

An interesting aspect of the tournament is that in many respects it is essentially a rerun of the 2012 European Championships that were also held in Serbia.  Originally planned to be held in the Netherlands, Serbia was a last minute replacement for last year’s tournament.  With many of the same venues being used there surely will be a sense of déjà vu for the European teams.

In regards to the non-European teams, again Brazil, South Korea and Angola will be the teams with decent chances to progress in the tournament.  Brazil which hosted the 2011 tournament and placed a disappointing 7th probably has the best chance.  South Korea is next and then Angola which has slipped in the eyes of the bookmakers.  As 4 team advance from each group to the round of 16 a few other sides do have a chance of advancing out of Group Play.  In Group B, China, Japan and Algeria will likely battle for the 4th place spot and in Group D, Tunisia is seen as a possibility to defeat the Czech Republic.

American Perspective

Fans in the U.S. and other parts of Pan America will surely be rooting for Brazil to make the top 8 as this will result in another 2015 World Championship qualification berth for the Pan American region.  The U.S is rebuilding its national team squad and a top 4 finish at the 2015 Pan American Championship would seem feasible.  Additionally, the U.S. will be casting its eyes on the performances of Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay as these sides along with Cuba are the teams to beat at the 2015 PANAM Games which serve as the qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Beating Brazil for the U.S. or any other Pan American for that matter is unlikely, but Brazil’s hosting of the Olympics means that another Pan American side will punch a ticket for Rio at that event.

Online Web Streaming: Link

As with the Men’s Championships this past January every match of the Women’s World Championship can be viewed at LiveSport.TV: Link  (Blackout restrictions, however, do apply and vary from country to country.)

IHF World Championship Webpage:  Link

Host (Serbia) Webpage: Link


AUDIO: Christer Ahl presentation on IHF governance issues now available

Christer Ahl (2nd from left) and other panel members address

Christer Ahl (2nd from left) and other panel members address “Sports Reform: How to change the tone at the top?”

Last Wednesday Christer Ahl gave a presentation at the Biannual Play the Game Conference in Aarhus, Denmark. His presentation provides an overview of International Handball Federation (IHF) governance issues that have taken place in the past few years including the dramatic increases in compensation for the IHF President and Council and the controversy surrounding the awarding of World Championship TV rights.

Christer concludes his presentation with a number of key points including the need for outside monitoring of international Federations,  increased support to sports development and FIFA reform, as this Federation is unfortunately seen as a model for many other federations to follow.

The Despotic Regime of the IHF Just Continues
Written Presentation:  Link
Audio:  Link
– Christer’s presentation (15:00-29:00)
– Q&A session:  Questions directed to Christer
– Question regarding whistle blowers and good practices (120:00)
– Question regarding national federations roles in influencing International Federation governance (126:00)

Play the Game Conference (Video and Audio of all presentations):  Link