Interview with Jaume Fort – Part 2: Issues related to being a Player Representative

As noted recently in Part 1 of my interview with Jaume Fort, he was for many years a world-class handball goalkeeper, playing on the Spanish national team during the period 1988-2000. In the process, he gained a bronze medal in the Olympic Games and a silver medal in the European Championships, both in 1996.

When Jaume finished his career as a player, he did remain firmly involved in handball, but not as a coach (and not even as referee, although I suspect he could have become a good one…). Instead he sensed a responsibility vis-à-vis his young successors. It is not surprising that, on the basis of what they knew about his character, his sense of ‘right and wrong’ and his eloquence in various languages, he struck them as the right person to have on their side.

[i]CA: So, Jaume, how did this ‘second handball career’ get started?[/i]

JF: I always tried to get 100% involved in Handball and be sensitive to what happened beyond the playing court. I was involved with ABM (Spanish Players’ Association) since its creation and I took up its presidency when I was playing for Teka Santander. When I retired, both the French and the Spanish players asked me to take the position of President for the European Handball Players’ Union (EHPU). There is a lot of work to be done, but it is a volunteer position without compensation, so for professional reasons I don’t know how long I will be able to carry on with this task.

[i]CA: In your role as Head of the EHPU, and looking at the situation of the top players in Europe, how do you view the current discussion about competition calendar, financial compensation, and the physical demands on the players?[/i]

JF: We have to be realistic: it will be very difficult to find global solutions which are valid to every stakeholder. Even among the players from different countries the situation varies a lot. Whereas top European players are completely burnt out by the inhuman physical and mental strain, the majority of players cannot complain about a brutal competition calendar. In my opinion, the only way out is to reduce the number of national team competitions, with just one EC and 1 WC in every Olympic cycle… and this will not happen in the next few years because the EHF and IHF events have been already awarded.

On the positive side, I would like to point out that the overall level of the 2010 European Championship recently held in Austria was considerably higher than in Norway 2008, where the players had to play 8 matches in 10 days. Planning more rest days at the major competitions is a small step in the right direction.

[i]CA: Am I right in sensing that while one talks a lot in public about pushing the players too far, most of the discussions involving federations and clubs in fact focus more on money?[/i]

JF: Absolutely right. Taking all competitions separately; no one can be directly “accused” of pushing the players too far. The problem arises when you add up all international club and national team competitions. The clubs want the return on their investments (players) to be achieved, so it is dramatic for them to get a player injured, especially if the injury takes place while the player has been released to the national team. If the clubs got a big sum of money as injury compensation, would they still be so concerned about the players’ health? Meanwhile, we’ll keep on seeing coaches “crying” when their players fall injured, but who is really going to stand up for the players’ rights?

[i]CA: Yes, it is difficult to see that the views and concerns of the players are being considered sufficiently? It seems that often it is assumed that the clubs can speak for the players, but isn’t there a bit of a conflict of interest?[/i]

JF: The concerns of the players are definitely not taken into account. To some extent, players are also to blame here, since they have often been concerned just by the figures on their contracts. The foundation of EHPU is a sign that collective awareness is slowly growing. In many aspects the player’s interests converge with those of their employers but it comes a point where players have to make their own voice heard. I am trying to convey the message to the players that they have to gain more influence. EHPU is promoting the creation of player associations in countries where such associations do not exist. The goal is to get a strong, united voice and use this influence in a responsible way. Having a constructive attitude towards the current situation is the only way to gain credibility among the other stakeholders, who have traditionally seen players’ unions or athletes’ commissions as a problem.

[i]CA: It seems to me that the issues are very much the same for both male and female players, with the same calendar issues and the same physical demands? But most of the discussions involve the men’s teams and the male players; how come? Are the female players ‘super women’ who do not need the same protection?[/i]

JF: Women have the same problems; especially in countries like Norway and Denmark, where the women’s handball is at a high level, with strong, busy club teams and top players who are also on their national teams around the world. In our last meeting with the EHF representatives in Innsbruck, we made it clear that this issue should also be dealt with. Annelise Vido, the EHPU board member representing the Danish players is doing a great job by raising all issues which affect especially women.

[i]CA: What are the keys to improving the overall situation as you see it?[/i]

JF: Basically, players should have a voice and a vote in the decision-making bodies. Apart from the competition calendar, other issues to be dealt with are the standardization of contracts, life after the sports career, medical care and a minimum level of insurance, and providing the players with all necessary anti-doping information.

[i]CA: Apropos decision-making bodies, you have had a frustrating experience, being on paper a member of the IHF Athletes’ Commission but being given basically no opportunity to be active and participate. Recently we have observed severe problems regarding the governance of the IHF, with frequent scandals at the top level and now currently a clearly deliberate attempt to change the By-Laws in a way that would seem to create a dictatorship with no ‘checks and balance’s and no room for other opinions; how do you view this development from the standpoint of the athletes?[/i]

JF: Handball has recently caused too many negative headlines on the media, and this has damaged the image of handball. Instead of releasing clear and transparent statements and taking appropriate actions, there was a long silence before the IHF at best showed some kind of weak-willed reaction. There is a need to urgently bring more transparency to the governance of the IHF, and the new By-Laws proposal is definitely a dangerous step in the wrong direction. I hope that all those who will be casting their votes at the next IHF Congress understand what is at stake!

Already in 2005, when the IHF Athletes’ Commission (AC) was created, we expressed our willingness to contribute in many ways to the promotion of our sport. Unfortunately, the AC has been totally ignored. Meanwhile, we have seen all these negative events and witnessed important staff changes within the IHF without any clear explanation. The recent comments from IOC President Rogge on Moustafa’s contract with Sportfive should clearly be a serious warning for the IHF and its President. I appeal to common sense and hope that the well-being of handball will prevail.

[i]CA: On a more positive note, if we look to the ability of handball to compete with other sports and other leisure activities, for young athletes, for spectators, media interest, and sponsors, what can we do to increase our attractiveness? (new tactics, rules changes, the ‘framework’/atmosphere for the matches etc)[/i]

JF: I’m afraid that any substantial change of the rules will collide with the traditional reluctance of coaches, players and fans to change the essence of handball. The new IHF rule book that has recently been issued contains no big changes.

The Bundesliga has made some steps in the right direction by presenting handball in a very professional way, where fans consider every match as the event of the day. The spectators gather together in the sports hall long before the match begins and they stay until all interviews are over. There are big halls where sponsors (and occasionally also fans) can have close contact with the players. Furthermore, the atmosphere during the matches is really hot.

It would be interesting to make our sport become more popular in other countries and continents. I follow the initiatives to introduce handball in the USA, and I can’t help wondering if these attempts have been properly coordinated with the national and continental federations. The celebration of the next Olympic Games in London should also be accompanied by promotional activities in Great Britain. Could the Super Globe, which is now scheduled to take place in Qatar, not have been celebrated in London for example? The IHF AC could very well serve the promotion of handball worldwide.

Some actions to be taken are, for instance:
• Creating a handball “Ambassador Tour”
• Developing handball schools in countries where handball is not so popular.
• Releasing a short “hype” video showcasing big celebrations, crazed fans, incredible plays and goalie saves with spirited music.
• Make the technical videos available to the handball community through the internet.

[i]CA: THN is happy to have been able to provide a forum for interesting observations and ideas from a player perspective. As can be seen above, the views presented are not selfish or controversial but constructive and for the common good of all parties. We thank Jaume and hope that it will be a more common occurrence to have the voice of the players as an integral part of any discussions about the development of handball.[/i]