European Men’s Qualifying for Sweden 2011 –more exciting than the women’s event??

Recently I described the women’s qualifying for EURO 2010 as rather predictable and uneventful. There the final stage involved playing in 7 groups with 4 teams each. In the qualifying for the WCh, the normal method in recent time has been to have qualifying in groups in an earlier round, and then rely on pairs of ‘knock-out’ matches in the final qualifying. Seven group winners joined eleven teams who played in the EURO 2010. The seven group winners had mostly had an easy time in moving to the knock-out stage, but the knock-out matches, almost by definition, tend to create more excitement.

This time was no exception, although four or perhaps five match-ups looked relatively one-sided, but not to the extent that a surprise could be completely ruled out. In the end, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Spain all moved on as anticipated. One could say that these matches involved strong winning teams or relatively weak losers. The other four pairings, by coincidence completely involving nations from the eastern part of Europe, lived up to the expectation of drama and last-minute decisions.

It would have been difficult for someone neutral to have been sure of a favorite between Slovenia and Hungary. The narrow 2-goal win for Slovenia at home proved to be just one goal too small, when Hungary got revenge at home by 3 goals. Serbia who started out with a 4-goal advantage at home quashed the hopes of the Czechs to make it back to the top group, as the 3-goal win for the Czechs in the second match fell just short of what was needed.

In the other two match-ups, the former ‘Soviets’ seemed to be bringing home solid lead, as Russia had won by 4 in Romania and as Ukraine, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, won by 5 goals away against Slovakia. Russia had probably been slight favorites to advance and there had been comments about bad luck in the draw for Romania. The Ukraine team was known to have injury problems, so perhaps the odds-makers favored Slovakia. But surely it was still a major surprise when Slovakia managed to turn things around and win by no less than nine(!) goals away. That the Russian would be in for a tough fight in the second match was expected, as the Romanians were really determined to reclaim their top status on the men’s side, but it was still a remarkable feat for the Romanians to match the 4-goal deficit with a 5-goal win. The Russian team is a homogenous side, with almost all of them playing together as a club team. So one begins to wonder if this is a sign of a broader decline for handball in Russia or if it was just a temporary set-back.

Of course, as hinted above, while the format of ‘knock-out’ pairings leads to excitement, it may not be the most fair and revealing approach. A lot depends on the luck of the draw. The teams that came from EURO 2010 definitely consisted of some high-powered teams and some more modest ones. Similarly, the seven group winners from the previous qualifying were not all of the same caliber. So it is really sufficiently fair then to depend on the draw. Perhaps it would be fairer to eliminate the play-offs in this form and let some of the EURO participants drop out, while the other teams would compete just among themselves for a predetermined number of WCh slots?

Clearly the trade-off are difficult among aspects such as fairness vs. excitement, advantages for the previous top teams vs. turnover and newness through more generous opportunities for other teams. And the desire to give a break in the competition calendar for those who participated in a EURO is obviously relevant, although perhaps progress on the issue of compensation for the salary-paying club teams may one day make this concern less pressing. In any case, after reviewing the process and the outcome for the EURO 2010 qualifying for the women and the WCh 2011 qualifying for the men, one might come to the conclusion that renewed thinking and some new methods might be welcome!

European Men's Qualification Playoff Results: