Some Reflections following the Men’s Youth and Junior World Championships

It is always of special interest to pay attention to what happens in these championships, as they give a sense for what the future of our sport may have to offer in different respects. It seems that both these events offered a number of very exciting matches, and that many talented players had an opportunity to display their great skills. There were also some surprising results in several individual matches, especially in the Junior Championship. It creates a sense of ‘globalization’ when one notes that in the early stages Argentina beat both Germany and Iceland, Brazil beat both France and Norway, and Iran beat Spain! In the end, Argentina finished 6th; the home team Egypt qualified for the bronze medal game, where they will try to surpass neighbors and rivals Tunisia, who used the advantage of being the host country by placing 4th in the Youth Championship.

But did this really constitute a break-through of some sort? Was there really a genuine indication that the group of countries that can compete at the absolute top has become truly broad and fully global? The answer is unfortunately that this was [u]not[/u] the case! Congratulations to Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and Tunisia to well-deserved successes, but the results in fact confirmed that there continues to be just a [u]very[/u] small group of countries, about 5 or 6 if at least Korea is added, that can compete reasonably well with the Europeans year after years, at the both the senior and the junior level.

This has not changed for a long time, and there are no obvious indications that it will change anytime soon. (Well, Iran, I wish you good luck to prove me wrong!) Clearly this is not a good situation for our sport. We can boast about new member countries showing up and voting at our Congresses, but this is not what will impress the rest of the world. They look for a much more [u]broad and diversified group at the absolute top[/u], as an indication that handball is really developing and achieving a truly global reach.

Football has been setting a really wonderful example in this regard, with a large number of ‘new’ countries showing that they are competitive at the highest level. This creates a totally different image for a [u]World[/u] Championship. In handball it is regrettably understandable, if people in some of the traditional European handball countries are less than impressed with the extra dimension that a World Championship supposedly should be adding in comparison with a European Championship. This is not the kind of argument that the non-European handball continents need in any upcoming discussions about the international competition calendar!

And the non-European Continental Federations must themselves assume a large part of the responsibility. For instance, it clearly does not help the situation of Argentina and Brazil if Greenland is the ‘number three’ country. That really says something about the lack of sustained progress in the rest of the continent. If 5 nations represent Africa in the Junior Championship and all of them are from North Africa, what does that say about the rest of the continent, especially when 4 out of 5 finish at the very bottom of the ranking!?

But the main responsibility for achieving a change lies with the IHF. This is where the know-how exists and this is where an allocation of special resources and efforts could have some results in a not too distant future. Recruiting and nurturing the newest and weakest member countries is of course important, and special efforts through training courses, seminars and the Challenge Cup serve a good purpose. But a concerted effort to help some of the more established countries in each continent (those next in line behind ARG/BRA/EGY/TUN/KOR) develop in a sustained way, so that they can [u]reach the top faster[/u], is a separate objective. Clearly we want a situation where all participants in a senior World Championship are competitive.

And this brings me to the crucial and more general question: in carrying out a lot of work, is the IHF just moving ahead in a traditional way, or is it really making a major effort to [u]adapt to modern realities[/u], specifically by [u]developing revised goals and objectives[/u] that are explicit enough so that they can be matched by [u]well-articulated strategies and plans[/u]?? In my own experience, I am concerned that the [u]IHF is lagging behind[/u] in this respect. For instance, many other international sports federations are making very systematic efforts in revamping goals and strategies, often with the help of external expertise, but also with the help of its own global ‘family’ of athletes, leaders, media, sponsors and spectators. We cannot afford to let handball fall behind in this tough competition! (I will come back in a separate article on the issue of goals and strategies!)