Congratulations, President Moustafa!

Some of you will be surprised to see this heading, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. I have heard the good news from three totally different sources now so I assume it must be true: following the most recent experimentation at a junior world championship, the IHF President has come to realize that further pursuits of the idea of ‘mixed couples’ in the IHF level refereeing should be stopped. This of course requires an explanation and some background for those who are not ‘insiders’ and experts on this topic.

In the late 1960s, IHF and other handball authorities had come to realize that our sport had developed to the point that, at least at the top level, it was no longer adequate to try to make do with [u]one[/u] referee in a game, even if supplemented by ‘goal judges’ (and, for the international games, also ‘line judges’!). The game had become too fast-moving and too complex, so the observation and decision-making demands had become too much for one lonely referee to handle.

When moving to referee ‘couples’, the IHF and the national federations concluded from the outset that the best approach would be to use ‘fixed’ couples as much as possible, at least at the higher levels. The notion was, and has remained, that the internal consistency and the teamwork would be enhanced if the two referees knew each other quite well, had the opportunity to refine their collaboration on the basis of accumulated experience, and furthermore at the personal level felt like a couple with a sense of mutual support on and off the court. The preparations from one game to the next would of course also be facilitated.

In basketball, things have developed differently. Here, from the lower levels to the top, the focus has been on recruiting and training individual referees, who are then put together in constantly changing couples (and these days, especially at the professional level, in trios). The notion is that the referees should achieve such consistency that they can quickly adjust to different partners every time. Another argument has been that it is easier to avoid ‘getting into a rut,’ if one constantly faces the challenge of working with a new partner.

In handball, at the international level, there have been arguments that ‘fixed’ couples may lead to a situation where some couples tend to consist of one stronger and one weaker member, so that less talented referees can move to the top undeservedly ‘on the coattails’ of a strong partner, while other more talented referees never get their chance. At the IHF level, however, this should not be an issue, as couples with a distinctly weaker member can be detected and either changed or dropped. Conversely, the IHF recruiting policies clearly state that a strong talent from a country where one finds only 1 (or 3 or 5) talented referees, will still be given a chance, so that a talent is not lost just because they cannot conveniently be fit into even pairs from the same country. In other words, individual referees can be nominated and approved, and the IHF will then make the effort to find a suitable partner from another country if need be.

I have to admit that [b]I strongly favor the traditional approach with ‘fixed’ couples[/b], as I find the advantages of this approach to be clearly dominant, and as I see no reason to believe that it is causing us real problems. And I am certainly not ready to believe that the ‘basketball approach’ would serve us better. However, as I have always noted, [b]the debate about the pros and cons of the two systems is perfectly legitimate[/b]! But the reality is that [b]a change of systems would be major and absolutely dramatic undertaking[/b], as it would mean that all handball nations would need to gradually change its approach from bottom to top. Such a decision could not be taken lightly, but [b]only if there was clear evidence that the current system is ‘broken’ and if there were very strong reasons to believe that the opposite system is better [/b]and worth the effort of undertaking the change. No such evidence has been presented!

The IHF President and some of his supporters have insisted in recent years on an experimentation that partly might have been intended to gather such evidence. However, the method used is totally unrealistic or even absurd, as it provides no evidence at all and only runs the risk of causing disasters that are damaging and insulting to the teams affected. I believe most people will easily realize that it makes absolutely no sense, as long as the ‘fixed’ approach is maintained world-wide and the IHF invites referees to its events in the form of well-synchronized couples, when one then proceeds to split up these ‘fixed’ couples into new permutations precisely when they come to show their best at the very highest level, at a World Championship.

So I am very happy if these meaningless experiments have been stopped, and if the focus instead will be on working harder with both the existing IHF top couples and the new recruits, first to strengthen the recruitment criteria and the subsequent performance evaluations for the individuals, and second to take an increasingly tougher line in ensuring that couples do not rise to the top if they contain a distinctly weaker link. But I also keep encouraging the IHF regime, as I have in fact done during many years, to use its clout to convince at least a few major handball countries to be willing to undertake a real experiment with the ‘basketball’ approach, from bottom to top during a period of several years. Then perhaps, enough evidence would emerge for a definitive conclusion to be drawn!