The recent announcement by USA Team Handball that 5 teams had been confirmed for the Women’s Division I Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) was notable not for the 5 teams listed (Mexico, USA, Chile, Puerto Rico and El Salvador), but was notable for the absence of one team- Cuba.
The Cuban women had re-emerged on the International season in 2007, finishing 2nd at the Pan American Games losing only to perennial America’s power Brazil. Just this past March they traveled to Germany to participate in an Olympic Qualification tournament, where they lost to Germany, Sweden and Croatia, but gained respect keeping the matches relatively close.
Despite these strong performances Cuba’s absence from International play meant that they had to qualify for the 2009 Women’s PATHF Championships by first placing 1st and 2nd at the upcoming Div 1 tournament. It was a foregone conclusion that they would qualify, but for whatever reason (financial, fear of defections) they won’t be traveling to Mexico. This no show means that the tournament is pretty wide open with every team probably with realistic expectations of finishing 1st or 2nd and moving on.
On paper, Mexico is the clear favorite to win. Playing at home and at the lofty altitude of Mexico City (7,400 ft) the young Mexican side could run the other teams into the ground. Last March at the 2nd chance Pan American Games qualification tournament the Mexicans did exactly that beating the USA 29-20 and Chile 27-24 to secure the last spot for the Pan American Games. At the Pan Am Games in July, Mexico continued to improve beating Canada twice on their way to a 5th place finish.
During pool play at the Pan American Games, Mexico also beat another PATHF participant, Puerto Rico in the consolation semi-final. Puerto Rico has shown they can play with the Mexicans though, having beat Mexico in the bronze medal game at the Central American Games in 2006.
The two losers (Chile and USA) at the 2nd chance tournament last year, undoubtedly will look upon their defeat to the young Mexican side as a learning experience and motivation for a different result this time around. They will also have the benefit of familiar surroundings and the memory of what it’s like to play at altitude. Chile will likely take solace in their 31-30 victory over the USA. Team USA will likewise take some comfort from their victory over Mexico at the 2007 PATHF Championships.
Team USA, however, is definitely in major rebuilding mode as their full time training program has been disbanded for over a year. Recently, the team was also humbled by a USA club side twice at a tournament in Chicago. Albeit , the club team consisted mostly of expats from outside the USA, but most observers would not classify the Chicago side as a powerhouse club team comparable to a National team.
On a positive note, three players have been playing regularly in France and a training camp has identified some new players that could in theory make an immediate impact.
And what about El Salvador? The only note I have is that they finished 5th at the Central American Games in 2006. But based on Paraguay’s, out of nowhere, improbable run to a 4th place at the 2007 Championships that earned them a berth at the 2007 World Championships no team should be taken lightly.
The Division I Championships are scheduled for 22-27 November.