For the geographically challenged, Tórshavn is the capital of the Faroe Islands, an archipelago north of Scotland which is an independent nation in some respects and part of Denmark in others. In other words, the Faroe Islands (population: 48,000) are to the European Handball Federation what Greenland is to the Pan-American Handball Federation (PATHF). Except in this case the Faroes have little chance of rocking the boat in taking qualification spots for the World Championships from other nations in the much stronger EHF.
Geography aside, the news story here is the EHF’s dramatic change to its qualification format for the Euro 2010 Championship in Vienna. For prior competitions the EHF has used a two tiered format for qualification. On the top tier were the European sides that had qualified for the preceding World Championships and on the bottom tier were everybody else. While the top tier European teams were playing at the World Championships (the preceding January) the remaining teams in the bottom tier would play group round robins to whittle their number down.
For 2008 qualification, 26 nations played in 7 preliminary groups to shrink their number down to 12 teams. Those 12 teams were than combined with the bottom 6 European teams from the World Championship. That pool of 18 teams was then drawn into 9 pairings for 2 game aggregate playoffs. Those 9 winners joined the 5 best European teams from the World Championships, the defending champion and the host nation to fill out the 16 team field. Kind of complicated and much simpler for the top tier teams to qualify.
This time around the format is much simpler. The host (Austria) and the defending champion (Denmark) automatically qualify. Everybody else (36 nations) was drawn into 7 groups where they will play a home and away double round robin. The top 2 nations in each group head to Vienna, while the rest stay home. The games will be played over 10 designated match dates with the first 2 rounds taking place on October 29-30 and November 1-2 . In total there will be 10 rounds with the last matches taking place in the middle of June.
[b]Score one for the little guys[/b]
This change significantly increases the number of qualifying matches for the elite nations and gives smaller nations like the Faroe Islands multiple opportunities to host much larger nations in season long double round robin competition. Yes, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland, Bosnia and Italy will be making the journey to tiny Torshavn. So far, it’s been rough for the Faroes as they lost to Serbia 41-20 in and to Bosnia, 45 -28. Not good, but much better than the 42-11 shellacking Germany put on Bulgaria. Expect to see a lot of scores in that vein, but also expect to see some morale victories like tiny Luxembourg’s 30-21 loss against Olympic Champion’s France. Against a side entirely composed of amateurs, France only led 15-13 at halftime.
But, the key words here are “morale victory”, as the nature of Handball means that it’s virtually impossible for a hopelessly overmatched squad to put together the 60 minutes of Handball necessary to actually win. In soccer, however it’s a different story. The new handball qualification format is nearly identical to the European soccer qualification format and nations like Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands have beaten or tied larger nations. Readers to this website already know that I am not a fan of soccer, but even I can appreciate the novelty of a small nation like the Faroe Islands challenging a big nation. While I lived in France, the Faroes were drawn into a group with France and my curiosity was such that I made a special point of seeing the match. They hung with the French for a little bit by putting all 11 players in the box, but once 1 goal was scored the floodgates opened. With handball you can only put 1 guy in front of the goal, so no such similar strategy is possible.
[b]Why the new format? [/b]
It’s fairly obvious that the new format is attempting to copy the success of the very popular soccer qualification system that has been in place for many years in Europe for both the European and World Championships. These soccer matches are usually sell-outs as soccer is wildly popular and these matches have huge ramifications. Just ask England which failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
In a recent newsletter EHF President Tor Lian replied thusly to a question concerning the format:
“ There had been in depth discussions on this matter for some years and as is the case in any democracy, there were obviously differing opinions on the path we should take. Many countries were asking for more national team activities and top class international matches at home – the success of the national team is important for the growth of any sport. The nations wanted to give their fans a chance to see their national team in action more often, this system allows this. We also had reached a point where we wanted to take the development of the EURO product one step further.”
But, while this rational makes sense, it’s not clear whether the interest in Handball will support the new extended format. Additionally, the clubs at some point will surely speak more forcefully about the additional games and the additional risks to their players. The clubs aren’t entirely happy about major tournaments like the World Championships and the Olympics. How happy are they going to be if a top player has a season ending injury in Torshavn? Already, some of the National sides have sent less than 100% full strength sides due to players choosing to rest nagging injuries rather than risk aggravating injuries. Part of the reason, Luxembourg was able to hang with the French for awhile was that Karabatic and the Gille brothers didn’t play due to injuries. I’m guessing that if Kiel had been scheduled to play Hamburg on Thursday they all would have played.
Also unmentioned, is that this format seems to conflict with all the noise the EHF has made about the need to change the World Championships to a once every 4 year events. Really, if you’re complaining about too many games for elite players, adding an extended qualification format doesn’t make much a whole lot of sense.
For all of these reasons it remains to be seen if the new format will stick and the EHF has indeed emphasized that it as experiment. Based on input from all involved the EHF will assess whether this format will continue in the years to come.
Faroe Islands soccer team: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faroe_Islands_national_football_team
Summary of first and second scores are here: http://www.eurohandball.com/ech/men/2010/round/2/Qualification
EHF-euro website: “Small miracle in Luxembourg”: http://www.ehf-euro.com/aut2010/news/singe-news/article/small-miracle-in-luxembourg.html
Euro 2010 Newsletter with entire EHF President interview on the new format: http://cms.eurohandball.com/ResourceImage.aspx?raid=5773