Analyzing the US decision to not participate in PATHF

Several days have elapsed since I requested clarification from USA Team Handball as to when, how and why it was decided to not participate in the Men’s Division 1 Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) Championship . Lacking an official response, I’ll try and fill in the gaps with some speculation.

[b]Announcement of the decision[/b]

But before I speculate as to why the decision was reach, I’ll first provide a little diatribe as to the communication of that decision. Best that I can tell the only “sort of” announcement of this decision was one sentence in the Board of Director’s Minutes for their meeting last July

“As part of this process, USATH is orienting national teams towards Europe for competitions, friendly tours, etc. until the continental question is resolved.”

I interpreted that statement to mean that the U.S. would primarily plan trips and seek competition with European nations and clubs. I certainly didn’t take it to mean that the U.S. would exclude itself entirely from PATHF competitions especially when World Championship and Olympic qualification can only be accomplished through those competitions. Seriously, if that’s what was meant then state it in plain English like this:

“As part of this process, USATH will not be participating in PATHF events until the continental question is resolved.”

Choosing to simply focus on the positive European trip aspect and neglecting to mention, “oh, by the way, scratch off Sweden 2011 as even a remote possibility” is not being fully honest.

And obviously, a clearly articulated National Team plan would have cleared up any misconceptions. Such a plan would include time windows for trips, planned locations for those trips, training camps, etc. Since my earlier posting I have seen some email traffic indicating that players trying out for the National Team were informed that the U.S. would not be participating in PATHF events, but then again those same emails also indicate that the Men’s team would be traveling to Poland and France for competition this winter. It now appears that the Poland trip has been cancelled or perhaps it has been replaced with the women’s team trip that has now been announced. Again, let’s don’t play I’ve got a secret with the players and the membership.

[b]The Decision Itself [/b]

So, now on to the decision itself. Here are a few reasons as to why the decision might have been made.

[b]The USA Federation didn’t want to jeopardize the establishment of a North American Handball Federation (NAHF)? [/b]

The Board meeting minutes imply that the decision is related to the Federation’s desire to establish a North American/Central American Handball Federation. Perhaps, USA Team Handball wants to make it clear that they are done with PATHF and don’t want to send a mixed message. Apparently, though, they are the lone nation with that concern as the PATHF Div 1 Championship is practically the first ever NAHF Championship with 5 of the 7 teams participating (Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Guatemala) likely to be members of this new Federation should it come to fruition. I would also expect that no one in the IHF would hold the fact that a nation wanted to compete for a spot at the World Championshp as a reason to deny the creation of a new federation.

You also won’t get any arguments from me about the merits of establishing a NAHF. Heck, I’ve spent a lot of time and ink detailing how our South American friends have arbitrarily made several unfair decisions impacting Greenland, Canada and the U.S. And even if the PATHF was a modicum of fair play and well organized, I still see merit in a more compact region which would eliminate expensive trips from one continent to the other. But as Christer Ahl pointed out , just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, especially if it means that some continent is going to have to cough up Olympic and WC berths.

[b]Not enough money to afford the trip?[/b]

This reason is pretty easy to scratch off the list. With 3 teams travelling to Europe and another trip planned for this year there’s clearly the resources available. It’s just a question of deciding which trip to take. Arguably a trip to the Dominican Republic might be substantially cheaper in terms of cost as food/lodging is the responsibility of the host nation. Travel costs are probably more complex, though, as we might have had to pay for some players to travel from Europe to attend. Notably, however, this isn’t a problem for our Canadian neighbors who have virtually no resources and usually require their own athletes to pay some, if not all, of the transportation costs out of their own pockets.

[b]A European Friendly trip is seen as more productive?[/b]

A case can be made that a friendly trip to Europe is a better expenditure of limited resources. If the trip is well organized, competitive matches can be played against club and national teams that are near peers. As the matches are friendly, there’s also less pressure to win so the coaching staff can give inexperienced players more playing time and conduct practices more focused on fundamentals as opposed to strategy for the next match. All true, but there’s a lot to be said for playing qualification matches that are by definition more meaningful. After all, friendlies are called friendlies for a reason.

[b]Participating would disrupt the youth movement?[/b]

One has only to look at the U23 and U18 trips that have taken place to notice that the USA Federation is probably setting its sites on 2016 (again it would be nice to see this articulated in a plan). Generally, though, when a nation is seeking to qualify for a WC or the Olympics it puts the very best team on the court that it can. The “future is now” so to speak and that means playing an aging veteran if he’s the best player at his position instead a promising newcomer. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s one that can be mitigated with straight talk with the players and a smart mix of old and new talent. Certainly, the U23 team that was sent with a sprinkling of veterans who didn’t meet the U23 requirement is a good example. The same sort of team could have been sent to the Dominican Republic and the youth movement would have benefited greatly from the experience.

[b]Team USA wants to avoid embarrassment?[/b]

The U.S. women’s team participated in the Women’s Division 1 Championships last year and was soundly beaten in all its games. To say the least, a very humbling experience and perhaps the fear is that the same thing would happen to the men’s team. On paper, I would assess Canada and the Dominican Republic as the clear favorites for 1st and 2nd. The other sides, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Venezuela and Columbia, however, are on par with the U.S. I’d like to think that we would beat them and after a few games under our belt maybe even beat Canada or the Dominican Republic in the semifinals. But, even if we couldn’t win, at least we’d go down fighting. And even if the trip was embarrassing, we’d still have a very good benchmark as to the status of our rebuilding U.S. team. Not to mention we’d know more about our likely foes for future competitions.

[b]Why this is a big deal[/b]

For anyone wondering why such a fuss about missing this little tournament in the Caribbean try to imagine the U.S. in any other team sport, not even trying to qualify for the World Championships. It’s unimaginable for a sport like basketball or soccer, but I would be surprised if it’s ever been even contemplated in other minor sports like field hockey, water polo or rugby. Seriously, your primary raison d’etre as a sports federation is fielding national teams for the World Championships and the Olympics. And as someone who’s attended the World Championships both as a player and reporter I can attest that it is an event that dwarfs all other Handball events (minus the Olympics, of course) in terms of importance. For me, personally, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Perhaps there is good justification for this decision. If there is, it needs to be clearly articulated to the membership and more importantly to the players who won’t be given a chance to compete.