Guest Commentary: A Comparison of Kosovo and USA Handball

Editor’s Note: Shkumbin Mustafa is a native of Kosovo who immigrated to the United States during the war there in 1999. A former Kosovo Tennis Champion he currently teaches and coaches Tennis in Manhattan. Before the war he worked as a sports editor for the most prominent daily newspaper in Kosovo (KOHA Ditore). Handball wise, his club team won the Kosovo Cup and since 2004 he has played with the current USA Club Champion, New York City Team Handball (NYCTH).

Here’s Shkumbin's commentary on Kosovo and USA Handball:

It’s truly amazing to me how a country like the United States pays so little attention to one of the most popular Olympic sports, and constantly degrades it’s quality to the point that it is barely surviving when it has so many resources and fantastic talent. For me as a refugee who has experienced both sides of good and bad, living and growing in a troublesome part of the world, surviving the war and coming to United States to find a better life the only thing I can do is to compare how things were then in Kosovo, and how they are now in United States.

I would like to say that a poor country like Kosovo can’t compete in any way with the United States, but unfortunately I can’t. Considering the circumstances, the team handball organization and level of play during the ongoing war in Kosovo was far more superior then the organization here now on US soil. It’s a shame, and quite an embarrassing comparison for the US because Kosovo with only 2 million people is not an independent country yet, and just recently got accepted as associate EHF member.

[b]Comparison 1 [/b]

When I played handball I did it outside on asphalt courts. However, they were always the right dimensions, and we always played 30 minutes halves, unless we were chased down, or arrested by the Serbian regime police, which I rather not mention now because it’s another long story, and also I wouldn’t like to offend anyone in the league especially my two teammates who I respect and admire for their skills.

In the last two US Nationals we played 2×20 minutes without time-outs, and in smaller courts, which is ridiculous. I could understand if they had no choice, but with all available resources in their hands USOC decided to go for an abbreviated time. At least we played indoors, but I still can’t figure out what kind of material was the floor at Delaware University.

[b]Comparison 2[/b]

The refereeing in Kosovo was always an issue, just like it’s now in US. It seems like each referee has their own set of rules, or book they refer to. One thing that really kills the game of team handball is bad refereeing which personally I can't stand. Slowing down the game, calling for travel when a player made only two steps, suspensions when players asks why he is being suspended,– all this shows the inexperience, and old-fashioned way our referees are doing their job. I think they are the only ones that actually get paid by the USOC.

Certainly if you want the quality of our games to be better then the referees have to work together, and tell each other about their mistakes, because they definitely don’t want to hear it from us. Ideally the best thing would be for all of them to sit down and analyze the games, which now are available thanks to Cristian Zaharias action to record his team’s games. Our referees will have plenty material to go through, and this way they can contribute to higher quality games.

[b]Comparison 3[/b]

Also in Kosovo we had a lot more fans watching the game even without any marketing or publicity promotions, but that is understandable because team handball is a European sport. That notion of team handball being a European sport can and should change now in US. I believe team handball has a better chance then soccer in to becoming a more popular sport in US because of it’s fast dynamics which suits perfectly sports fans in this country. It’s like that old advertising: “The best kept secret sport in the world”, where not just I, but many other handball players and fans believe it’s possible to achieve if we can get the right people for the right reasons to run, and create a blueprint of the future for team handball in US. We need media coverage at least in local radio, newspaper, and TV stations. People need to hear and see more of team handball so we can get them more involved, and maybe make them fans of the game.

[b]Comparison 4[/b]

At the moment there are four men’s Kosovo teams that compete in EHF Cups. They weren’t very lucky in their draws, but they are gaining international experience and getting ready for bigger things. The grassroots program in developing new talent have started, and I think with better resources, and persistent passion for the game Kosovo will do just fine in team handball in the future.

Regrettably I can’t say that about US team handball. And I think I can speak truthfully because I am a part of this generation that plays handball now, and intends to play for as long as my body allows it to. Considering the fact that we won the gold in the Nationals this year with only one practice a week, in a gym that’s half the size of the original court I find it to be an amazing achievement. I call our team the Team of Mercenaries from New York where players drop in an out due to life-changing things that happen to all of us, like for me when I had my baby girl I stopped playing handball for more then a year and a half. Things can change for better or worse at any moment. All teams in the US need help and a vision to get better for the future, otherwise things look bleak and teams will slowly disappear.

There is a tiny hope, and two little flashing lights at the end of this dark tunnel. And they are called the Miami Sharks and Chicago Inter.

As a former sports journalist it was a pleasure to see how Miami and Chicago conducted themselves on and off the court. Not to take anything away from West Point, who also in the past few years has been one of the most improved teams in the country, but with Cristian Zaharias running the show in Miami, and Mariusz Wartalowicz the one in Chicago at least those two cities have a better future.

I hope they make it last, and continue being vocal critics of the current USOC management style, because we need experienced men like them to make things better for team handball in US.

[b]Comparison 5[/b]

Kosovo has a national team, but it can’t compete internationally as a state, because we are not one yet. Hopefully, that will happen soon and so I can compare their success with the success of the US National Team.

As for the US National Team I believe that if top-quality personnel takes over the organization of National Team they will be able to recruit at least 16 great players from around US who deserve to be on the team and would give anything to bring some salvation and dignity to their country. With proper early tryouts and regular training chances are the National Team can still have a chance to compete with Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and maybe make the cut for the next Pan Am games. But, it has to happen now after the debacle in Chile.

Well, this is all from me. I hope you will enjoy the comparisons between Kosovo, which is the size of Connecticut and has 9 Elite Division Teams, and US who has around 300 million people and only 8 Elite Division Teams.

If you have any comments or you would like to ask me a question please feel free to send me an email at

Shkumbin Mustafa

3 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: A Comparison of Kosovo and USA Handball

  1. Good analysis, but this is nothing new. This has been the same for the 30 years since I was first involved in handball, just someone who is recently involved in American team handball thinking no one has seen this over the last 50 years since it was started here.
    Please consisder the difficulties of getting a American football team started in Kosovo [with natives of Kosovo] good enough to conpete against semi-pro teams here, let alone an NFL team. There is no culture of handball here, just as there is no culture of American football in Kosovo. [consider that NFL Europe has been around since the 1990's with a lot more money than handball here, and it is still staffed by Americans, not Europeans]. The first thing my brother-in-law said when I wanted to teach my nephew handball, was "Is there any college scholarships?". Of course I had to say no.
    I will say that handball here does depend on people who will take the responsibility to do the work neccessary to keep a club active. If there was still a club everwhere I have every heard of one being over the years, we would have a couple of hundred clubs instead of a few dozen. God Bless everyone willing to shoulder that responsibility, and I wish the best to anyone with a positive attitude and will work to make good handball possible in the USA. Just remember that this a project that will involve decades, not months or years.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your feedback. With the analogy I wrote I had no intentions of creating a buzz about something new. I agree with you that there are many people out there like yourself who have been involved in handball for the past three or four decades that have the same opinion about USA team handball as I do.

    It's hard to start an American football team in Kosovo for one main reason, and that's the lack of appropriate facilities needed. We have two or maybe three safe soccer stadiums in the entire country which is the most popular sport there, and we will never be able to have a stadium for American football.

    When I worked as a journalist every week I wrote/translated about NFL games, especially the Super Bowl. I made sure that People in Kosovo are informed about American football, and at least know some of the greats like Joe Montana. Unfortunately, I don't think Kosovo will ever have an American football team because of lack of facilities, and not because of lack of football culture.

    On the other hand I can't say US lacks facilities to organize better handball leagues and championships. They just lack the right approach to promote this sport better in US. Create a solid National Team that could bring this sport back to life. It's not that it's impossible to have a good national team, we just need professionals to run it, and have realistic goals.

    I believe there are few colleges that offer handball schoolarships. They are down in Georgia, and Carolina. Last time I read about the NCAA offers is that they have around 10 – 12 schoolarships for womens first and second division handball teams. It would be great if there are more available, especially for men, but that shouldn't be the reason for your nephew not to play handball. If you are a handball player yourself you know the adrenaline rush you get when being hooked on this game. Of course handball is not for everyone, and I know this because I have seen friends I played other sports together to quit handball because of the physical demand this sport requires. It's hard, fast and tough, but for some of us it's definitely worth it.

    You are right about that it takes a lot of dedication and individual responsibility to keep a handball team alive, and still have some kind of quality. Richarld Kluz is one of the people you are talking about. He is the one that kept New York City Team Handball alive since it's foundation in 1972. Even up to this day Richie is the first one to come to practice, keep us informed, enroll us for NETHL, and Nationals, reserve the hotels, and do all the administrative work for our club. It's the love for the game that he has that finally paid off for him to see New York City Team Handball win the National Championship.

    It will take a long time to make something happen with US Handball, but it shouldn't take long to build a solid National Team to compete at least with other countries in Americas.

    Thank you,
    Shkumbin Mustafa

  3. This comment is what the USA thought back in the 1970's and '80's. "It will take a long time to make something happen with US Handball, but it shouldn't take long to build a solid National Team to compete at least with other countries in Americas." At that time we were dominating in this hemisphere. Now we have been bypassed because Brazil and Argentina have managed to develop a "culture of handball" in their countries. By "culture of handball" I mean kids playing it and watching it from a very young age. I cannot believe Kosovo could ever develop a American football team comparible to an NFL team from natives of Kosovo. Knowing the name of Joe Montana and being able to play the sport like him are two differant things. You have to play from a young age, and be exposed to opportunities to watch top players play the sport so you can learn from them. The biggest reason handball finds it hard to develop here is not money or facilities [although gyms are built for basketball, not handball and money will not come without more interest], but the fact that, in the crowded sports scene in the USA, no one cares about a sport they do not know about, don't see on TV, and are not taught in schools. The trouble with [native] players in the USA is they have no"culture of handball", and did not play while young and watch the sport. Even though they are good athletes, by not learning the sport young and regularly competing in it, they will never match good athletes who learn young and compete regularly.
    I can teach you to play baseball, but your chances of ever playing for the N.Y. Yankees are non-existant. The NCAA does not recognise handball as a sanctioned sport. The only college teams are club teams, and there are no scholorships. If you can show me official NCAA information about handball, or if you know of a school specifically with a scholorship, let me know, my son could use it!
    I taught my son and daughter to play, and I alteady plan to teach my youngest daughter and my granddaughters to play. [No grandsons yet].
    Congratulations to NYCTH for winning the Nationals, I wish you all the best, keep up the good work.

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