Interview with Jaume Fort — Part 1: Handball in Spain

Jaume Fort had a long and distinguished career as a national team goalkeeper in Spain, partly during a period, when Spain had not yet become a ‘world power’. Unlike most players of that caliber, he stayed in handball in a role where he could put his experience to good use for the next generation of players around the world. His peers elected him as ‘Athlete representative’ to the IHF, and he has gone on to become the Head of the European Handball Players’ Union. Jaume agreed to share with our readers some background information about handball in Spain, and later on, in Part 2 of this interview about issues related to his role as a player representative.

[i]CA: Jaume, I remember meeting you for the first time when you were the goalkeeper on the Spanish team in the Goodwill Games in 1990 and I was one of the referees; but could you summarize how you first got involved in handball, and how your career as a goalkeeper progressed![/i]

JF: I started playing in my hometown Cardedeu at the age of 6. My two brothers played handball and so did most of my friends, so that the chances of me getting involved in handball were pretty high. At first I kept playing both handball and baseball simultaneously, but at the age of 14 I made up my mind for handball. One year later I changed to Granollers, where I grew up as a handball player. The peak of my career was in 1996 with the silver medal in the European Championship in Sevilla and the bronze medal in Olympic Games. These were the first medals ever in such competitions for the Spanish handball. I am also very proud of having participated on the Spanish team in all major international competitions during twelve years, from 1988 to 2000.

When I started playing I never thought about becoming a professional sportsman and now I feel very fortunate because for almost 20 years I could play professional handball in the strongest leagues of the world. I spent the last 5 years of my active career in Germany; playing in the Bundesliga was a great experience both personally and professionally. I would encourage Spanish players to take the opportunity and do the same (traditionally, there are very few Spanish players who decide to play in Germany…)

[i]CA: Both the men’s and the women’s national teams from Spain have become well established at the elite level; but it was not always like that; could you explain how and when handball really took off in Spain! [/i]

JF: If we look at the final standings of the major official competitions, we’ll see that for many years the men’s national team could not break the barrier of a 5th place, but we were always very close to the top teams. In 1996, three months before the Atlanta Olympic Games, Spain was not even qualified for the Olympics. but the silver medals in the European Championship gave us the last ticket for Atlanta, where we in the end won the bronze medal. From that moment on, the national team played with more self-confidence and all rivals have considered Spain to be among the favorites in every competition. Definitely, the gold medal at the 2005 WC in Tunisia was the icing on the cake.

In the recent competitions, Spanish women have proven that they also belong to the best teams in the world. Our women’s team won the silver medal at the 2008 EC. However, women’s handball is not so popular as in northern European countries like Denmark or Norway.

It is interesting to note that in 1997 one of the most successful handball players in Spain, Iñaki Urdangarín, married the youngest daughter of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, and became the Duke of Palma de Mallorca. Never before had handball in Spain obtained such a great media interest, but more than a decade later, it is clear that we did not take advantage and thus missed a unique chance to make our sport become more popular.

[i]CA: The top league in Spain, ASOBAL, really shows strength in European competition and attracts star players from all over the world; but how do you see the strength and depth of the league, how is the financial stability, the spectator and media interests?[/i]

JF: Together with the Bundesliga, ASOBAL is the strongest league in the world. The European competitions have been Spain’s reign in modern handball, especially in the nineties, where different Spanish teams were able to win all different European competitions. Nowadays, there are just two Spanish clubs that can keep up with the powerful German teams: FC Barcelona and BM Ciudad Real. The solid financial and structural situation of the German teams makes it more and more difficult for Spanish teams to reach the final rounds. Most teams in ASOBAL have cut down their budgets in the last two years. As a result of this, the international handball stars feel more attracted by the Bundesliga, where the difference between the strongest and the weakest teams is not so big. This season Ciudad Real has won all their 21 matches in the ASOBAL league up to this point; something similar is very unlikely to happen in the Bundesliga. Spectator and media interest is also much bigger in Germany, where Handball is clearly sport Nr 2 behind soccer. The average spectators’ attendance in the Bundesliga doubles that of the ASOBAL league.

From the organizational and spectators point of view, the 2007 WC held in Germany is, beyond any doubt, the best major handball competition ever organized (outside the Olympic Games). This can only happen in a country like Germany, where one finds a great economic potential together with a high spectator and media interest. Another important difference is that Spanish clubs have a much bigger dependence on the money they get from local governments than German clubs do. To put it in a graphic way, many Spanish clubs are financially in the Intensive Care Unit whereas German clubs are going through a small cold.

[i]CA: What about the ‘grassroots’ level? Is there a strong ‘pyramid’ with competitive leagues and well-organized clubs also below the top?[/i]

JF: We do have grassroots competition in every region. But if we ask the coaches at the top of the pyramid, they will claim that young players have important technical, tactical and physical deficits which should have been acquired at an early stage. As I see it, this can be partially explained because youth trainers lack technical preparation. Related to this, most top clubs invest little time and effort in grassroots handball and this will inevitably backfire in the near future. It can be said that the distance between elite and grassroots handball is getting bigger and bigger, so that the chances of young Spanish players bursting into the ASOBAL League are really small. Another bad symptom is that national youth and junior teams are doing poorly at the major events.

[i]CA: Leaving aside football, how does handball in Spain compare with other team sports, for instance basketball and volleyball?[/i]

JF: If we look at the total number of licenses issued by sport federations, handball is ranked at the eighth place with almost 3% of the licenses. Needless to say, football is by far the most popular sport in Spain (22,7%), followed by basketball (10,8 %), the leading indoor team sport. Although Spanish basketball clubs and national teams have a level of success at the major international competitions similar to that of handball, basketball enjoys a much higher media and spectator interest than handball. Considered to be the absolute basketball paradise, the NBA is the ultimate reference. Spanish basketball has succeeded in selling the idea that Spain is the alternative to the NBA dominance. To illustrate this, we can recall the huge media attention in recent matches between Spain and USA and the fact that we have several Spanish players competing in the NBA. Apart from basketball, there are other sports which are in direct competition with handball to draw the interest of media and spectators, like indoor football (five-a-side), which has become very popular in the last decade.

[i]CA: So overall, how do you assess the longer-term future of handball in Spain? [/i]

JF: In Spain we have seen how some traditional handball clubs have disappeared or are in a very delicate situation. Atlético de Madrid, Teka Santander and Bidasoa Irun (former European top clubs) are the most significant examples. The current economic crisis does not help at all since all the teams have big problems with their budgets. Competition from other sports is constantly growing. Top clubs generally invest little time and effort in grassroots sport, so that the responsibility falls on the small clubs, whose trainers do not always have the necessary training. I wish I could say I was more optimistic about the future…

CA: On this slightly worrisome note, we thank Jaume for his ‘behind the scenes’ insights about Spanish handball. In the near future, in a ‘Part 2’, Jaume will tell us about issue related to his current role as player representative.