A dialog with ‘Abbe’, ‘Mr. Partille Cup’

‘Stefan Albrechtson’ may not necessarily be a household name everywhere, but if you simply say ‘Abbe’ or ‘Mr. Partille Cup’, then you will get a response in almost every corner of our handball globe. (Sorry, I forgot: a globe does not have corners…). And now that he got himself elected into an IHF Commission, then there will soon be no limit to his fame… I have known Abbe for many, many years; in fact, I was involved in a major way in the organization of Partille Cup in the early years (1970-74) when the event was still relative small by today’s standards and when ‘Abbe’ himself was too small to be a big ‘Cup General’. [i]But I must admit I have forgotten exactly when and how and why ‘Abbe’ first got involved in handball in a major way so let us start with that:[/i]

SA: At first it was all football, but then I started with handball at age 14, through Savehof, the organizer of Partille Cup. This also provided opportunities for trips abroad, which inspired me a lot. In 1976 (at age 17) I got the chance to work for Partille Cup during the summer, something that I really enjoyed. A few years later I was studying at the university, while working for Savehof as their only employee. At Savehof I found almost too many interesting challenges and goals, so in the end I had to abandon my studies. 1980 was my first year in charge of Partille Cup, at that time with almost 300 teams from 20 countries.

[i]CA: In the early years, Partille Cup was mostly an event for Nordic and German teams. There were, and still are, many other youth tournaments during the summer months. What was it that caused Partille Cup and Saevehof to decide to be so ambitious in terms of size and global outreach?[/i]

SA: Gradually, there were several of us involved, who could handle different languages and enjoyed the experience in dealing with other cultures, so this increased our global ambitions. In the early 1980s, there were nine specific countries that helped adding a dimension to Partille Cup: Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Korea, Kuwait, Nigeria, Poland, Spain, Taiwan and Yugoslavia. We felt that several other youth tournaments looked very similar in their basic concept, so we wanted to stand out by offering a different approach. In this way, we became the model for events and federations that in more recent time have tried to be more global in their focus. But we keep taking new initiatives; now in January we will be involved in Kenya, helping our friends there to organize ”Partille Cup – Kenya Trophy” with more than 50 teams and 800 players! [i](Ed.: we will try to provide some reports from this event in a later article). [/i]

[i]CA: Of course, to be so successful, you must have a very attractive product; what do you see as the key factors in your ability to become so popular everywhere?[/i]

SA: First you need to have the support we enjoyed from the local authorities, who solved many logistical problems for us. But then the key really is the dedication of our staff. One needs people who are really service-minded and care about our participants. We have three persons full-time all year, and then we need a staff of about 25 more who take charge of different areas amd projects during the summer months. We need people who are willing to come back and make this sacrifice year after year, so that we get a lot of continuity and familiarity with the issues. In addition, we need about 1.100 volunteers, who take on a lot of hard work during the event, involving areas such as lodging, food, transportation, entertainment and sales. The people doing those jobs see it as a passion and a pride. We are known for our hospitality and personal touch, and this would have been impossible if we had used ’hired hands’ instead of volunteers.

[i]CA: Thinking back, what have been your happiest or proudest moments during all the years you have been involved?[/i]

SA: For me it is really the fact that we have been able to help so many ’new’ handball countries to get started and to get to love handball. Being able to invite them to the Partille Cup, and then see them go back home full of enthusiasm and ready to inspire others to develop our sport is really special. And it is really incredible to think that in total we have received more than 300,000 players and team leaders from about 20,000 teams and 85 countries. These are the aspects that personally make me feel proud. But I should also mention the big step we took in 2004, when we moved the whole event from the suburb of Partille to the very center of the city of Goteborg.

[i]CA: Looking ahead, I guess there are limits for the size, but in what other respects are you still trying to improve the event?[/i]

SA: As regards the size of the event, we are almost at the level of 1.000 teams now; from a logistics standpoint I am sure we would have no problems adding at least another 100-200. But if we had just focused on numbers, then I doubt we would ever have grown so much. It is the emphasis on quality and renewal that has made the growth possible. We want to have satisfied guests, so we want to make each individual feel important and welcome. We want them to feel that they get just as much attention as if the number of participants had been much smaller. Of course, there is one aspect that is critical for an outdoor event, and that is the weather that we (regrettably!) cannot control…

[i]To read the rest of the interview, click on the link:[/i]

[i]CA: Back in the early 1970s, Savehof was still a relatively modest club, with the senior teams typically struggling in the 3rd division or so; but while other traditional clubs have had a tough time, in terms of both results on the court and finances, Savehof has grown parallel to Partille Cup to become an absolute top club in Sweden, with good results also in EHF competition. How do explain this success story?[/i]

SA: From the time the club was founded in 1950, we have been able to nurture a lot of youth players for the top clubs all over Sweden. But in the early 1980s, there was a firm decision to stop this trend. We wanted our youth talents to stay in the club and, together with occasional recruits of experienced top players, our own talents have helped us get to a level where we could challenge the very top after about 10 years and then remain there.
Now at least 75% of the players on our elite teams (men and women) consist of players who grew up in Savehof. And the current Swedish national teams (also both men and women) each have about 6-8 players with a background in Savehof.

[i]CA: But in recent years, the tendency has been for both Saevehof and the other Swedish clubs to bring up young talents to the top level, but then to see them move on to tougher leagues and bigger money, not just in Bundesliga and ASOBAL but often in the neighboring countries. This could be both a source of pride and also a reason for frustration? How do you view it, and it is likely to continue this way?[/i]

SA: Of course it is nice if we can nurture players who eventually can make a living out of playing handball in other countries. But I get very frustrated when I see how poorly the small youth clubs are treated or compensated, after they initially recruit and provide these talents who later make a big-time career. The clubs below the international elite level are too weak to defend their interests. I also find it very frustrating that EU does not have any power or interest in ensuring that leagues in different countries are working under the same conditions, in terms of employer taxes or taxes on player salaries and signing fees.

[i]CA: Is there any hope that the Swedish League would ever become competitive enough so that the young stars would see it as an option to stay at home, and what would it take for this to happen?[/i]

SA: This change is already taking place. The breakthrough came three years ago in the form of contracts with the national TV channels. This season they broadcast 40 matches. This is an important factor in enabling each club the opportunity to improve its financial situation. We also have more spectators than ever before.

[i]CA: You are also involved in a major way in the preparations for the Men’s World Championship 2011, which is being hosted by Sweden. Such an event requires a major effort by a lot of people. What do you and the Swedish Federation hope will be the positive returns from making this effort?[/i]

SA: We do not want to host an event that would just be for the sake of Sweden or that would only offer something to the participating countries. We want the World Championship 2011 to be an event for the entire handball world, and that all the IHF member countries in one way or the other can feel they are part of it and get inspired.

[i]CA: When Sweden asked IHF for the privilege of hosting this event, you indicated that the Swedish federation would be prepared to ‘give back’ to the developing handball world in some interesting ways; could you give us some ideas of what this amounts to?[/i]

SA: Yes, we have offered to take the lead with many activities in the large continents Africa, America and Asia. The focus is on exchanges involving education for coaches, referees and team officials. This also includes invitations to Partille Cup under very favorable conditions, for countries that demonstrate a solid leadership.

[i]CA: As if you did not have enough on your plate already, you have now also agreed to serve on the IHF Commission for Promotion and Public Relations. More in general terms, how do you see yourself fitting into this role and being able to make a contribution?[/i]

SA: In many ways, I see my role and goals as similar to what they were when I first started working for Savehof and Partille Cup: I want to facilitate growth in handball, in terms of players, leaders, clubs, schools and countries. IHF should be the best vehicle for this. So this is why the ’CPP’ is the IHF Commission that fits my interests the best.

[i]CA: Do you have any specific issues that you would like to focus on or any particular ideas that you would like to see implemented?[/i]

SA: I would like to see a structure where every national federation documents the status of handball in its country, its goals, its opportunities and its obstacles. In this way one could also determine which federations are the ones who are developing in such a way that there is credibility and strong prospects for a return on any collaborative efforts. Wherever it is feasible, I would like to see handball spread through schools and teachers. I also believe federations and regions need to encourage a stronger competition structure with more events.

[i]CA: As you know better than most people, the success in the area of promotion and public relations essentially always depend on the quality of the product you are promoting. Handball is having an increasingly tough competition, not just from other sports but from other leisure activities, when we want to attract young players and new spectators and sponsors. If you were given free hands, what improvements to our product ‘handball’ would you like to see, in order to make us more competitive?[/i]

SA: This is an important challenge for all of us. Perhaps a solution would be to have a playing time of 3×20 minutes at the elite level. You would probably get more intensity and shorter stoppages in the game. I am also looking for better opportunites to integrate other activities with the match: involving the spectators, sponsors, media etc. And it important to try to add more ’drama’ to the TV broadcasts. Another wish is to have the referees use hand signals more fully to explain what actually happened in each situation where they intervene.

[i]CA: Finally, you have often nudged me regarding the participation of U.S. teams in Partille Cup, and you have shown a genuine interest in the development of handball in what has been my country for 35 years now. We both know that there are no easy solutions, but would you still care to offer any ideas or suggestions that you think would be helpful?[/i]

SA: It seems to me that, over and over, the people in charge of handball in the U.S. have felt that the key is to ‘build from the top’. This has always failed. I believe this is because the efforts have not been accompanied by sufficient efforts at the grassroots level. I also support the idea of selecting certain regions/states/cities with a special potential for a new sport to become established and grow. And then take a longer-term view – have patience!!