USA Women Participating in Friendly International Tourney in South Korea

Busan International Friendly Tournament: USA Women to take on 3 club teams and 2 national team sides.

The USA Women are in Busan, South Korea where they are 1 of 6 teams participating in an International Friendly Tournament.  Korean club teams are sponsored by companies and the Busan Infrastructure Corporation (BISCO) sponsors a club team that plays in Korea’s top league.  Other teams participating including ERD HC from Hungary, EH Aalborg from Denmark and the national teams from Taiwan and Australia.

Based on pedigree ERD and hosts BISCO should be the two top teams.  ERD HC placed 3rd in Hungary’s top league and qualified for the EHF Cup (Europe’s 2nd level competition below the Champions League).  EH Aalborg finished 7th last season in Denmark’s 2nd Division and should be a notch below those 2 teams.  As these clubs are professional or semi-professional they will likely present stiff competition for the U.S.

The two other national teams participating, Taiwan and Australia, however, should be teams the U.S. can match up with as neither side has performed particularly well recently in International competition.  Taiwan’s most recent Asian Championships appearance was in 2012 where they placed 7th out of 12 participants.  I’m not very familiar with Taiwan handball and it’s not clear as to why they haven’t participated since then.

Australia has been the dominant team in Oceania and regularly qualified for the World Championships until their automatic slot was eliminated in 2015.  That being said, they never won a match at the World Championships and often lost the 23rd place match to the weakest Pan American side participating.

The tournament is scheduled to take place over 5 days and will be a full round robin with 3 matches played daily.

USA Match Schedule (Korea is 13 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time)

Saturday, 19 Aug 1700 (Local) / 0400 ET USA vs Busan BISCO (South Korea)
Sunday, 20 Aug 1500 (Local) / 0200 ET USA vs ERD HC (Hungary)
Monday, 21 Aug 1300 (Local) / 0001 ET USA vs EH Aalborg (Denmark)
Tuesday, 22 Aug 1300 (Local) / 0001 ET USA vs Australia
Wednesday, 23 Aug 1400 (Local) / 0100 ET USA vs Taiwan

Swedish Immigrant to Try Out for U.S. Women’s Team

Elina Linner, shown here playing beach handball will be trying out for the U.S. Women's team next weekend.

Elina Linner, shown here playing beach handball, will be trying out for the U.S. Women’s court team next weekend.

The Desert Sun newspaper, based in Palm Springs, California has an article/video on a potential new member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Elina Linner.

Desert Sun (9 Dec 2016) La Quinta graduate a unique talent in an unusual sport: Link

Linner played for several years in Sweden for her club team, Lödde Vikings,  prior to immigrating to the U.S. two years ago.  She has been practicing with the LA Team Handball club and is attending tryouts in Auburn next weekend.  Linner, also has a fundraising site to help support her efforts: Link

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NBC to Provide USA Fans with “Handball” TV Channel

My new favorite TV Channel:  The NBC Team Handball channel on my Roku

My new favorite TV Channel: The NBC Team Handball channel on my Roku

Remember the days when the Olympics were only on 1 TV channel?  Viewers had no choice, but to watch whatever the network decided to show.  Were you going to see any handball?  Not very likely.  Heck, I didn’t even see any handball until the 84 games and even then it was just a few highlights.

Over the years we’ve seen that viewing experience evolve, almost always for the better.  Here’s how you can watch Team Handball in the U.S. this Olympiad.  And, new this year a “handball channel”.  Hey, I might be back to 1 channel again.  What goes around, comes around.

Traditional TV:  NBC will be broadcasting the Olympics on several NBC owned channels.  Some Team Handball will be shown on a daily basis on either the USA Network, NBCSN, MSNBC or CNBC.

NBC Handball TV Schedule: Link

Live Stream: For the past couple of Olympics we’ve also been able to watch live streams of every match.  Sometimes this viewing experience has been frustrating, but we’ve seen the quality and reliability improve with each passing Olympiad.  To watch download the NBC Sports App and make sure it’s loaded on your computer, tablet or smartphone.

NBC APP: Link
NBC Handball Live Stream: Link

Live Stream to your Connected TV:  This Olympiad you will also be able to watch Handball on your TV if you have a Roku, Apple TV or other similar Over The Top (OTT) TV connection.  In order to get this option, though, you’ll first need to add the NBC Sports channel to your channel lineup.  I did this for my Roku and the process was similar to adding HBO Go, NBC News or any other channel.  And, to fully activate the channel you will then need to go online to authenticate that you have a cable or satellite TV subscription.  At which point you will get a code to enter in on your Roku to finish the activation process.

Of course, you can always just link your TV to your computer via an HDMI cable, but generally your picture via Roku and other platforms is better.  And, hopefully, the Handball channel will also have on demand matches available.  This, however, remains to be seen.

NBC’s How to Watch Rio 2016 Olympics page: Link

Olympic Team Handball Information Page

Welcome:  Like clockwork every four years the great sport of Team Handball finds thousands of new fans with the discovery of the sport during Olympic TV broadcasts.  Many articles are written about the sport and talk radio fills the airwaves with discussion and rhetorical questions.  As a longtime fan of the sport this quadrennial burst of interest is always welcome even if it tends to fade out all too soon.  This page is intended to help new found fans, journalists and radio talk show hosts learn more about the sport.

Media Assistance:  Are you working on a story regarding this great sport?  I am readily available to help  answer questions regarding the sport’s rules, its organization world-wide, and to offer my opinions as to why the U.S. hasn’t been very successful and what might be done to change that.  Contact: john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Sports Radio:  Are you fielding calls from listeners and discussing a sport you’ve only just discovered?  Contact me if you would like for me to come on air and talk about the ongoing Olympic competition or the sport in general.  Contact: john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

FAQ:  This pages contains answers to a number of Frequently Asked Questions regarding the sport:  Link

Commentaries on Team Handball in the U.S.:  Have you started to wonder why the U.S. struggles in this sport that is so inherently American?  Perhaps you have come up with some ideas to solve this seemingly simple problem.  All well in good, but in many cases those ideas have either already been tried unsuccessfully or have some underlying issues which make their implementation challenging or simply unfeasible.  I don’t claim to have all the answers, but chances are I’ve addressed the topic and framed the issues.  These commentaries might be a good starting point for further reflection: Link

Previous U.S. Mainstream Media Articles on the Sport: Here’s a list of previous articles written about the sport: Link

John Ryan’s Bio: I learned the sport at the Air Force Academy, had a 2 year stint with the U.S. National Team and lived in France for 5 years where I had an opportunity to immerse myself in the sport. I’ve been writing and commentating about the sport since 2004.  More detailed bio: Link

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Performance Rows for PANAM Games: Break for USA Women; Difficult Path for USA Men

The Implications of PANAM Games performance row implications for the USA Women and Men should they qualify for the PANAM Games

The Implications of PANAM Games performance row implications for the USA Women and Men should they qualify for the 2015 PANAM Games

Ruben Gomez at Mundo Handball recently posted two articles (Men and Women) assessing the Performance Rows for the Drawing of Groups A and B for the 2015 PANAM Games.  With 7 of the 8 teams known for the upcoming tournament it’s now possible to establish performance row scenarios based on who the 8th and final team will be.  For the men, the 8th team will either be the U.S., Uruguay or Mexico.  For the Women it will be either the U.S, Uruguay or the Dominican Republic.    What follows is an assessment on what’s potentially in store for the U.S. Men and Women at the PANAM Game should either or both teams win the 2nd chance qualification tournament next March.

USA Women:  (A 50-50 Coin Toss to Avoid Brazil in the Semis)

Women
Brazil Argentina 1st Row
Mexico Chile 2nd Row
Puerto Rico USA 3rd Row
Cuba Canada 4th Row

It pretty much goes without saying that the Brazilian Women are prohibitive favorites to win the Gold Medal.  If any side stays within 10 goals of the current World Champion that will be a major accomplishment.  Actually beating Brazil would be about 10 more times epic than the U.S. Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviets in 1980.  Fortunately for the other teams at the PANAM Games, Brazil as the host nation has already qualified for the 2016 Olympics.  This means that whatever side takes 2nd will also qualify for Rio.

And, to get to that Gold Medal Game the all important over-riding factor is avoiding Brazil in the semifinals.  How does a nation do that?  Well, there’s only one way to absolutely guarantee that you will avoid Brazil:  You need to be drawn into the same Group as Brazil.  For the USA Women that’s a simple 50-50 proposition.

If the U.S. does win the “avoid Brazil” coin flip, securing 2nd place behind Brazil seems fairly feasible.  One side they are almost guaranteed to face is Canada.  As the host nation of the 2015 PANAM Games, Canada gets to select their group after the other 3 performance rows are drawn.  It’s hard to believe the Canadians won’t use this advantage and select the Brazil group.  Rounding out the competition will be either Mexico or Chile from the 2nd performance row.  The most advantageous draw would be taking on Mexico and Canada for a mini NORCA competition to advance to the semis.  Chile would present a tougher opponent, but is comparable to Uruguay a team the U.S. would have had to have beaten to make it to Toronto anyway.  Assuming the U.S. takes the 2nd spot they would then likely play Argentina for a semifinal showdown.  A superior opponent, but if the U.S.makes it that far then it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility of an upset.

If the U.S. loses the “avoid Brazil” coin flip, all is not lost, but it’s a tougher journey.  The U.S. would then be grouped with Argentina, Cuba and either (Mexico or Chile).  Then it becomes a matter of winning the Group to avoid Brazil.  One way to look at it, is to resign yourself to the reality of needing to beat Argentina, you might as well get it over with sooner.  Then if you win the Group, you’ll still have a semifinal to win, but in theory a weaker opponent like Canada, Puerto Rico or Chile.  In theory, because one can only imagine the atmosphere in Toronto should Canada make it to the semifinals.  Come to think of it, the Canadians, may be an unknown quantity, but by virtue of their hosting I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they make the semifinals.

USA Men  (No 50-50 Coin Flip and 2 Huge Upsets Likely Required)

Men
Argentina Brazil 1st Row
Chile Dom Rep 2nd Row
Canada USA 3rd Row
Cuba Puerto Rico 4th Row

The overall scenario for the Men is similar to the Women’s, but the Brazilian Men are not a virtual 100% lock to win their group the way Brazilian Women are.  Not, a 100% likelihood, but probably around 90% with Chile being the most likely candidate for an upset.  Still, one can assume that the same logic holds:  Better to be in Brazil’s Group to avoid them in the semifinals.  Complicating matters further is the reality that the Argentina is the best Men’s team in Pan America.  They aren’t crazy good like the Brazilian Women, but they are a quality side and in relative terms the Argentine Men will be more challenging to upset then Argentine Women.

If one assumes that Canada will follow the Avoid Brazil strategy, the U.S. pairing with Canada on the 3rd performance row means that it will be impossible for the U.S. Men to win an “avoid Brazil” coin flip.  Nope, the U.S. will be Argentina’s Group, meaning that more than one miracle upset will likely be required.   One path would be to place 2nd in the group, knock off Brazil in the Semis and then muster another upset against Argentina in the Finals.   Another path would be to surprise Argentina in Group Play and finish first in the Group, knock off say, Chile, in the Semis then hope that Argentina doesn’t knock off Brazil in the other semi, because if they do you’ll need to beat Argentina again in the final.  It goes without saying that these paths are exceedingly difficult.  In all honesty, it would have been a huge longshot for the U.S. to knock off Argentina in a one match winner take all semifinal.  With that possibility gone, and now 2 big victories likely required it’s hard to even dream of a miracle.

Carts Before the Horse

Of course, this article is getting way ahead of itself.  U.S. qualification for the PANAM Games is far from guaranteed.  Beating Uruguay in the 2nd chance tourney will be challenging even if the tourney is hosted at Auburn.

And, here’s another cart:  PATHF regulations have been known to be very flexible in their implementation.  Translation:  Just because these performance rows follow the book doesn’t mean the book can’t be changed.

Still, these draw implications may weigh into any lobbying the U.S. does to secure the right to host the a 2nd Chance Tournament at Auburn. Should PATHF decide to split the hosting of the Men and Women’s tournaments it might be better to indicate a preference to host the Women’s Tourney as they have a more plausible scenario for Olympic qualification.  But, then again if simply ensuring qualification of at least one American team for Toronto is desired it might be better to push for hosting the Men’s tournament as the Men appear right now to have a better chance of beating Uruguay.

 

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Proposed new format for Champions League causes the expected uproar

Champions League becoming the playground reserved for the rich and powerful?

Champions League becoming the playground reserved for the rich and powerful?

For several years now, there has been a strong sense that the EHF Champions League for men has yet to find its ideal format. The approach used in recent years does allow for a fairly large number of countries to have a team involved, but the drawn-out group stage has tended to become a predictable and boring period with many meaningless games. So there has been a lot of pressure for changes.

And now there is a proposal which seems to be gaining momentum after a preliminary agreement between the EHF and the association of the European top clubs, the FCH. The proposal is to replace the current format, which has 24 teams in the group stage, with a top division with 16 teams and a lower division with 12 teams. The proposal has the support of the majority of the top clubs but far from everyone is happy with the idea. In fact, it is strongly resisted in many places.

The problem is that different countries have vastly different circumstances. Leaving out those countries which really do not have a champion who is competitive enough to participate, the other countries essentially fall into three categories: 1) those rather few countries who have a league with many evenly matched teams, with a different champion every year, and with a strong following among the fans; 2) several countries where one or possibly two teams dominate completely, perhaps by tradition but more likely because of vast differences in financial resources and access to top players; and 3) Germany.

The new format, which would have four more games than currently for the teams in the new top group, suits the teams from category 2 perfectly. This would be Barcelona, Veszprem, Croatia, Kielce and several others. They would love to have more games in Champions League, which matters much more to them than the national league. But the teams from category 1 are of course upset for two reasons. Several of them would be excluded from a top group with only 16 teams; and if they do qualify, then they have to play more such games at the expense of their national league which still matters to them.

But Germany is really the crux. Typically there would be four teams from Germany in Champions League who all have a good chance to qualify for the final four or at least to be in the quarter-finals. And by any measure, the German Bundesliga is by far the strongest national league. But it has one problem, which leads to stubbornness or selfishness in Germany and to resentment in the other countries. Bundesliga has 18 teams, but it is not the strongest because of that. Normally, there are 5-6 top teams, 5-6 other quite strong teams, and then 6-8 teams who are not of the same caliber. But all these teams, and other clubs who have a chance to qualify for Bundesliga, desperately want to keep the number at 18, so that they can have the chance to be in this top league.

Unfortunately, and for reasons that are not clear to me personally, the very top teams in Germany also resist a reduction from 18 to 16, perhaps out of some kind of national loyalty. It seems that the games that would disappear if the league was reduced would be offset by even more lucrative games in Champions League. And of course the many teams in other countries who like the proposed format think the Germans are selfish and resent the German attitude. I can fully appreciate that. But, while I see many advantages in a move towards a real ‘elite league’, I can also understand the attitude of those countries in category 1 who resist the whole idea.

In fact, they argue along the same lines as many currently do in the context of football. Recent voices have been heard with arguments that UEFA has really created a closed and unfair system, where year after year roughly the same teams from the same small number of countries monopolize the places in the group stage of the Champions League. By that time, most of the champions of the about 50 countries in Europe have long since been eliminated from the competition. Their chances are only theoretical. It seems that at the same time, football and handball have come up against this issue of basic principle: should there be a true ‘champions’ league’ or should we be moving towards some kind of ‘closed shop’ Euroleague for the rich and powerful elite. This is an important debate and a critical decision!

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Qatar defeats Bahrain in a dramatic final

Rivals Qatar and Bahrain in a tough battle

Rivals Qatar and Bahrain in a tough battle

Qatar were clearly the favorites in the Asian Championship, considering their recent progress and the special efforts they are making to have a strong team when they host the World Championship one year from now. And they lived up to expectations throughout the event, winning all their group matches with large margins and then defeating Iran in the semifinal.

But in the final they had to take on the home team, Bahrain, who probably had been the main surprise of this championship, for instance by winning their group ahead of Iran, Korea and Saudi Arabia. In the semifinal, the Bahraini had easily defeated the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain’s success has been made possible by strong efforts especially by the brothers Jaffar and Mahmood Abdul Qader. The final, where of course the Bahraini had strong crowd support in the fight against their rivals from Qatar, it was a very close encounter up to the very end. But to the frustration of their supporters, the Bahraini fell by a one-goal margin, 26-27, after 14-14 at half-time. It was a real battle, with tough methods and lots of provocations from both sides. A difficult job for the referees, but apparently a solid performance by Johansson/Kliko from Sweden.

As I reported earlier, the semi-finalists were already gaining spots in next year’s World Championship, regardless of the final ranking, where Iran today secured the bronze medals by winning against the U.A.E. The perennial top teams in the Asian continent, from Korea and Kuwait were a disappointment. As I have indicated, Korea failed to reach the semi-finals by the smallest of margins and got the fifth place by defeating Saudi Arabia in their final match. Kuwait placed seventh by beating Oman. But the real fiasco concerns the ranking of Japan in ninth and China in eleventh place, Japan has probably never before had such a weak showing, and China clearly has not made any progress following the Olympic Games. Should one draw the conclusion that the hegemony of the East Asians is now over, and that the Gulf States has once and for all by-passed them.

Looking ahead to the 2015 World Championship, almost half the field is now determined: Qatar; Spain (as defending champions); France, Denmark and Croatia from Europe; Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt from Africa; and now Bahrain, Iran and the United Arab Emirates from Asia. Nine of the remaining thirteen slots will go to the winner of the European play-off pairings in June, three will be determined in the PanAmerican Championship in Uruguay in June, and one place is for the winner in Oceania.

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Championships all over the world

Qatar 2015 is the goal for the top men's teams in all the continents

Qatar 2015 is the goal for the top men’s teams in all the continents

The preliminary round of the African Championships for men and women finished today, even if almost all of the teams advancing to the semifinals were known already yesterday. On the women’s side, I had suggested that the main question was which other team would join the three recent World Championship participants in the semifinals. Not surprisingly the answer is Algeria, who were able to use the home court advantage. They won their group ahead of the team from Dem. Rep. of Congo. In the other group, Angola and Tunisia dominated, with Angola coming out as the winner (25 -19) in today’s encounter between the two. This makes for an intriguing semifinal between Algeria and Tunisia, and the other semifinal is then Dem. Rep. of Congo against Angola. The fourth-placed team will not qualify for the World Championship.

On the men’s side, Egypt and Tunisia were through to the semifinals prior to today’s game between the two, which Tunisia won by 26-20 after a commanding 15-7 lead at half-time. These teams had easily won against all their four group opponents. Third place in the group went to Cameroon. In the other group, Angola had defeated Morocco in the very first game, but then they surprisingly lost against Dem. Rep. of Congo. So today Angola first needed to beat the ‘other’ Congo, which they did convincingly (38-29), and then they needed to hope that Algeria would defeat Morocco. This also happened, as Algeria pulled away to 26-19, after 11-11 at half-time. Judging from the group results, Morocco was never really convincing; and as I wrote a few days ago, it may be good for African handball to have a Sub-Saharan team come through on the men’s side. The semi-finals will now be: Algeria-Egypt and Angola-Tunisia. The top three will go through to Qatar 2015. Algeria-Egypt promises to be a hard-fought battle.

In the European Championship, the teams in the Main Round groups now have one game left on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. Denmark is already through as a group winner to the semifinals from Group A, while Iceland still has a chance to knock Spain out of the other semifinal spot. But this would require both a win for Iceland against Denmark and a loss for Spain against FYR Macedonia. It seems to me that Spain is too strong to allow that to happen. In the other group, the results today meant that France is already the group winner and that, on Thursday, we will have a Croatia-Poland game which directly decides who will be second and third in the group. Sweden had seemed to have a chance, but today they had a complete mental breakdown against Poland, following the near collapse against Russia two days ago.

And before competitions come to an end in Algeria and Denmark, the 16th Asian Men’s Championship will get started on Saturday in Bahrain. Twelve teams will be competing, initially in two groups of six. Three teams will qualify for the next World Championships in January 2015, but as this event will take place in Qatar, it means that the hosts have a spot guaranteed. Undoubtedly, the Qatari will still see it as a matter of prestige to do well now in Bahrain, and they are probably the favorites. But it takes a little bit of pressure off for all the other teams who could qualify even if they come in fourth. The format of the event means that the key is to come in first or second in the group and qualify for the semifinals.

Group A: Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Bahrain. Group B: Qatar, Japan, U.A.E., Kuwait, Iraq and Oman. Group A has the three top seeds as the main contenders, as China does not seem to have progressed since the 2012 Olympics. The host team from Bahrain will have a tough time. Group B might look just slightly easier, but a tough fight seems to be looming between Japan and Kuwait. On the basis of recent results, U.A. E. may also be capable of a surprise.

The IHF is providing support for both the African and the Asian events. In Bahrain, there are two referee couples assigned, Johansson/Kliko from Sweden and Pichon/Reveret from France, under the supervision of the Referee Committee member Ramon Gallego. In Algeria, ten African referee couples are reinforced by Cacador/Nicloau from Portugal, under the leadership of Manfred Prause, IHF/PRC President and PRC member Roland Buergi.

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Women’s World Championship: some reflections

The Brazilian women at the top of the podium

The Brazilian women at the top of the podium

After we have now had time to celebrate the Brazilian triumph, there may still be some additional observations to make. First of all, I was delighted to the see the highly unusual amount of coverage in Brazilian media, perhaps in part because the event coincided with the vacation period in football… There were proud comments along the lines: “The girls are as good with their hands as the boys with their feet!” And it has also been interesting to review the comments in European media. One can find a mixture of reactions: selfish worries that the World Championship is no longer an internal European affair, delight that we now have an indication that handball is really a global sport, and above all attempts to explain why the Brazilians came out on top.

On that last point, I think there is general recognition that this should not really have been such a surprise, because Brazil has shown consistent strength for a while now. But many point to the experience gained by most of the players in European top club competition, and the fact that as many as six of the best players are now playing and training together under coach Soubak at Hypo. There is also a recognition that the Brazilians have been able to develop a style that is modern and dynamic, with players who do not look so big and intimidating but nevertheless are athletic, quick and tough. Many also commented on their ability to handle the pressure of some 20,000 spectators mostly supporting their opponents.

There has also been some speculation that it is not a coincidence that some of the perennial top teams from Europe seemed to struggle a bit. So some commentators suggest that it is the unrealistic pressure of having five top events in four years that is having its effect. In every four-year period, the Europeans have to deal with a continental championship that in terms of quality and demands does not have its equivalent in the other continents. And it is tough to put together a team in top form so frequently, as there is no time to integrate new players and to cope with injuries or other reasons for some ‘ups and downs’. But on the other hand, the European teams generally have a much larger pool of top players than their non-European rivals, so that should make for more flexibility and resilience.

Many have noted that the Brazilian victory will enable PanAmerica to field five teams, including Brazil, in 2015. There are two ways of looking at this. One, is the excitement of being able to have additional teams get the opportunity to face the highest level of competition and that this will encourage efforts and improvement in several federations around the continent. But, if one looks at the very feeble performance of the weaker Panamerican representatives this year, it seems that it could turn out to be bad for both the event and for the Panamerican image in 2015, unless several teams really make major strides in their development of more competitive teams. And, that is not going to be easy so soon!

Of course, I cannot avoid commenting also on the refereeing. Personally, I was pleased to see the progress of some younger couples. But, many media reports and comments from participating teams suggest that they were not so impressed by the overall standard in Serbia. It was noted that, if one removes the couples which will soon be in Denmark for the Men’s EURO 2014 and who could not realistically be in both events, it seemed that it could have been possible to insert some other experienced couples instead of some of those who were not seen as having reached a high level. Especially, I noticed the usual remarks that the IHF (and the EHF) seem to discriminate against the women’s championships. One important aspect is then the endeavor to use some couples with female referees. Regrettably, my own observations suggest that there has not been much progress in the last 5-10 years in terms of quality and stability on the part of the better female couples. Perhaps we see more female couples in EHF competition, but do they get the necessary support (including in their home countries) to reach the level required in a World Championship?

Finally, the despotic IHF president again decided to ignore common sense and the advice from the real experts around him. In the ‘consolation round’ for positions 17-24 he suddenly and capriciously ordered the Referee Committee to split up the established couples and experiment with combinations of referees who have never been on the court together before. Perhaps he felt he could get away with this nonsense because all the teams involved were from outside Europe, and all the referees involved were either women or from other continents. As I have written extensively before, and as I argued with the IHF president during my own years in the IHF, the concept of ‘mixed couples’ (as opposed to ‘fixed couples’) should never be considered for the international events, until and unless all the top handball countries were to decide that this is generally the best approach and therefore introduce it for their national leagues, such as Bundesliga, ASOBAL, Haandbold Ligaen, Ligue Nationale de Handball etc.

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BRASIL!!! Panamerican World Championship Gold for the first time ever!

the new World Champions

the new World Champions

So the many years of efforts finally paid off! Brazil’s women have been close to the very top for a long while now, but always there was that one match that derailed the move towards the medal podium. In the 2012 Olympics, Brazil surprisingly won one of the two groups, but instead of getting a relatively easier path in the quarter-finals, they encountered Norway who had stumbled a bit in their group. So that led to a premature exit.

Now in the World Championship, the Brazilians had what already from the beginning looked like a tough preliminary group, with hosts Serbia and perennial medal favorites Denmark. But they managed to defeat both these opponents and win the group. And at that point we did not yet know that this group in fact had all the three eventual medal winners. But after four more wins, against Netherlands, Hungary and again Denmark and Serbia, Brazil are now at the top of the rankings! Nine straight wins, so nobody could argue that Brazil are not worthy winners! Defeating Denmark in the semi-finals by 27-21 and then coping with the enormous crowd support in favor of their Serbian opponents, and their own nerves, in their first ever final, holding on for a 22-20 win is really impressive!

The talent and spirit of the players has always been there. They have gained lots of international experience by playing for clubs in Europe, mostly Austrian Hypo. And they now have shrewd ant tactically strong support by their Portuguese-speaking Danish coach Morten Soubak. They have great goalkeeping, a spectrum of offensive weapons and, in my opinion, an enormously dynamic and alert defense. Their impressive footwork and reactions always seem to put them in the right place at the right moment. All in all, they play a positive and attractive handball!

While the Brazilians should now enjoy this special moment, I am sure that both they and everyone else can see the special significance of these gold medals, when one keeps in mind that the next Olympic Games will be held precisely in Brazil. So this victory should mean a lot for the interest in handball in Brazil, and for the determination of these players to hang in there and come even more prepared in 2016.

The Brazilian victory will also have implications for other PanAmerican handball countries in the sense that, unless IHF competition regulations change again, no less than four other teams from PanAmerica, plus of course Brazil, will be able to participate in the 2015 World Championships. This should give a boost in a number of countries who will now find it realistic to get onto the world scene. Finally, as someone who for over 30 years has been active in the PanAmerican Handball Federation, I must say that I feel really happy or even proud, because I know what it means and I know what it takes for a country in our continent to get to the number one position. From all of us in Panamerica: well done, and well deserved, Brazil!

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Yes, Brazil vs. Denmark again, but Poland is the big surprise!

Happy Polish players celebrate their place in the semifinals against Serbia

Happy Polish players celebrate their place in the semifinals against Serbia

Well, at least some of my predictions for the semifinals worked out: Denmark will indeed get the chance to have revenge on Brazil for the loss in the preliminary round, but the Norway-France pairing will not materialize. Both teams made their way to the quarterfinals, but there it came to an end.

France had looked relatively steady and comfortable in the preliminary round, and they easily got past Japan. But against Poland they suddenly appeared lacking in confidence and fighting spirit. Some of the veterans were not in old form and some of the newcomers looked overwhelmed. By contrast, Poland came to the game with a lot of enthusiasm after having defeated Romania. They just played their style and never let up. It was refreshing to see their attitude, and the 22-21 victory was deserved. And the Swedish team sitting at home watching may now feel some sense of consolation, after they were so criticized by being kicked out by Poland in the qualifying.

Poland will now have to deal with the home team Serbia. Just as in EURO2012, where Serbia was also the hosts, it seemed again that playing in front of a boisterous home crowd made a real difference. This had already been noticed in the previous round, where Serbian hooligans used green lasers in the face of the Korean 7-meter shooters. Norway got off to a great start with good goalkeeping and a fast-paced game, and it seemed that they were on a winning path. But suddenly the lost their rhythms, resorting to crazy shooting and beginning to leak on defense. In particular, they were not able to cope with the ‘heavy-weight’ circle-runner Cvijic. So much to the delight of the spectators, Serbia turned a 15-20 deficit into a 25-22 edge and never looked back. Norwegian spectators and media were dumbfounded and coach Hergeirsson was criticized for having been too passive. The unofficial Serbian anthem ‘The march to Drina’ could be heard with increasing fervor.

Denmark started out in a way similar to Norway, using fast-breaks and speed to get ahead. But gradually the German team fought back. It was then a tough game with an uncertain outcome for most of the game, until Denmark again was able to get a grip towards the end. The end result was 31-28. It had seemed already in the ’round of 16′ against Montenegro that Denmark was back in shape after a hapless preliminary round. So even if they were occasionally struggling today, they are probably going to be a tough nut to crack for Brazil in the semifinal; and then there is that element of revenge!

It is hard to know how Brazil will react after their victory today. They had occasionally been unconvincing in the previous game against Netherlands, and now they had an even more experienced opponent in form of Hungary. Of course, I had really dismissed the weak effort of Hungary in the preliminary round, but against Spain they then showed improvement and today they were again good enough to win, And it was close, with Brazil seemingly getting undisciplined before the result after 60 minutes was set at 26-26. The lack of discipline and some bad luck with referee decisions continued, so I was prepared to give up on our PanAmerican friends. But in the end their determination was greater and they pulled away to 33-31 in the second half of the second overtime. Alexandra played a dominant role, but both goalkeepers also contributed to the win. So now Brazil is through to the semi-final for the first time ever. Will they still be ‘hungry’ and ready to go for more after that achievement? Other PanAmerican teams are certainly hoping so, because a Brazilian gold medal would mean that no less than FIVE PanAmerican teams will be able to participate in the 2015 World Championship.

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Celebration in the Vatican: the Pope’s team won the football championship in Argentina

Pope Francis proudly displaying the shirt of his favorite team, the new champions in Argentiina

Pope Francis proudly displaying the shirt of his favorite team, the new champions in Argentiina

There are many famous football teams in Argentina, for instance River Plate, Racing, Velez Sarsfield and, of course, Boca Juniors. The latter is obviously ‘my’ team, considering that they play in blue and yellow, moreover having once picked those colors from the flag of a Swedish ship entering the harbor of Buenos Aires. But in recent time, the team more often mentioned internationally is San Lorenzo (de Almagro), the team supported by Pope Francis. It should not require much explanation as to why he favors a team named after a sainted third-century Christian martyr.

San Lorenzo has not managed to win the championship in Argentina since 2007, but now it happened again. A team with such a well-connected and powerful supporter should of course have a major advantage. And by playing 0-0 at Velez Sarsfield, they managed to hold off second-placed Lanus who also managed just a draw in the final round. Our congratulations go out to San Lorenzo and all their supporters, including my good friend and successor as PanAmerican referee chief in handball, Miguel Zaworotny, now the Managing Director in the office of the PanAmerican Handball Federation. But how about San Lorenzo also starting a section for handball, perhaps even a women’s team!?

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The new IOC President Thomas Bach – what will ‘unity in diversity’ mean in practice?

Ceremonial handover at the IOC: Jacques Rogge (right) hands over the key to his successor Thomas Bach (left)

Ceremonial handover at the IOC: Jacques Rogge (right) hands over the key to his successor Thomas Bach (left)

The dust has now settled after the complex and somewhat controversial election process which led to Thomas Bach of Germany taking over as new President of the International Olympic Committee three months ago. Observers of the Olympic movement are now instead paying attention to every word and every action by Bach, trying to interpret what direction and what changes could be expected as a result of the Bach presidency.

Bach, who turns 60 a week from now, has started out in a way which suggests that he quickly wants to try to put to rest the suspicions and concerns that surrounded his election. As I noted in some articles prior to the election, there had been concerns related to Bach’s background as a protégé of Horst Dassler, the former Adidas boss, who was seen as the ‘Godfather’ of the corrupt aspects of sports marketing and power brokerage. Similarly, the notion that Bach was being pushed by the well-known ‘puppet master’ Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait did not go over too well in many circles in the IOC and elsewhere in the world of sports.

So in a situation where, after 12 years, many had become disillusioned by the lack of achievements by the departing IOC president, Jacques Rogge, Bach has come into office with a lot to prove. Bach has been seen by many as a traditionalist and as a defender of key aspects of ‘status quo’, for instance by perennially being the IOC spokesman on the topic of the IOC’s strong insistence on autonomy for the sports movement. So for those who are looking for change, there were concerns. Among the changes that people have been hoping for, one could mention the composition of the IOC and the secret and stodgy nature of its work processes, the criteria and processes for the selection of Olympic host cities, the composition of the program for the Olympic Games, and the increasing sense of corruption and bad governance in international sports federations (IFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs).

Clearly, the IOC is first and foremost a ‘machine’ in charge of organizing the Olympic Games, moreover, with the recognition that such complex mega-events require a strong focus on its business aspects and the related politics. To a large extent, the respective IFs have a major role in ensuring the proper technical and sporting execution of the Games. But the IOC, as Bach clearly realizes, also has to be concerned with the image and credibility of the Olympic movement. Attention must be paid to issues such as corruption and doping. And the IOC would frantically hope that uncomfortable aspects such as anti-gay laws, abusive construction practices and worries about freedom the press at the upcoming Sochi games would not come to the forefront. Similarly, worries about political protests and delays in the preparations for Rio 2016 are dark clouds on the horizon. So Bach appreciates that bidding and selection processes will be critical in the future.

The continued justification for the existence of some traditional sports on the Olympic program is a hot topic, considering the realization, as just confirmed by Bach, that there is really no scope for expanding the number of participating athletes. And at the same time, there is a claim from many emerging sports who want to get their chance, something which also coincides with the IOC’s awareness that a modernization is needed in order to retain the interest among the younger generations. So the experience of the Youth Olympic Games, where some experimentation has been used, could become important. But there is also a balancing act in the sense that sponsors and TV rights holders will continue to insist on prominence for the well-established ‘cash cows’ on the program. Bach now seems to try to find a new way out, by discussing fine-tuning focused on specific events within the different sports, rather than just looking at additions and deletions of entire sports in the program.

Finally, I think it would be too optimistic to expect that Bach will take a new stand regarding the scope and propriety for the IOC to monitor and affect governance and corruption issues in IFs and NOCs. First, one must again keep in mind that the IOC is mainly focused on organizing the Olympic Games. Second, the ability of the IOC to serve as a role model or ‘police man’ given its own weaknesses in terms of membership and procedures is limited, although Bach seems intent on increasing IOC effectiveness, transparency and attention to ethics. Third, the potential for major conflicts and a weakening of the IOC’s ability to carry out its core functions would be enormous, if the IOC started intervening in the internal processes of the IFs and NOCs.

Yes, there is a tremendous need for such a role, and the IOC is theoretically well-placed, given its position at the top of the ‘matrix’ of IFs and NOCs. But for such role one would really need a separate WADA-like entity. Just perhaps there is some hope that Bach eventually would come to that conclusion. After all, he has explicitly recognized that the insistence on autonomy of the sports movement is tenable only if good governance and adherence to ethical principles can be demonstrated! So let us see what he means with his somewhat cryptic slogan: ‘unity in diversity’!