Many negative lessons can be learned from the football World Cup

There are many who want to describe the football World Cup as the main sports event in the world. Perhaps this is because it involves the one sport that virtually every country in the world takes an interest in. By contrast, the Olympic Games include a lot of events that are rather unknown in many parts of the world. Of course, many patriotic observers in the U.S. will keep insisting that everyone should know that the real football is the sport that is played primarily with the hands… But when an unfortunate football referee from Mali becomes a front page figure in the U.S., then it seems that football=soccer finally has gained some prominence also in this country.

Unfortunately, it seems that the enormous focus on this one event every four years has its drawbacks. It seems that this contributes to the many negative aspects that dominate the reporting and the reactions. Perhaps we are better off in handball having our World Championships more often, so that it is not a world disaster if a team fails. Perhaps it is the knowledge that the next chance does not come until four years from now, that makes coaches and players throw their sense of sportsmanship, decency and fair play overboard!!??

Yes, there have been several nice and exciting matches among the first 34 played; there have been many fantastic goals scored, and we have seen many great individual performances. But this has been almost overshadowed by the many negative incidents. To some extent it almost seems to be a matter of tradition or culture. The same teams, even when they are winning easily, are the ones guilty of provocations and unsportsmanlike action. Often it seems to be related to star status and arrogance; some players and teams somehow expect to be getting special treatment when they are up against some more ‘obscure’ opponents. This tendency is, regrettably, not totally unknown in handball.

The most irritating element has probably been the faking or ‘theater’. Referees are rightly criticized when the show the ‘red card’ for something that the TV replays confirm as being much less serious. And the criticism is also rampant when a player seems to have deserved a penalty-kick but the referee waves ‘play on’. But in reality the players are the ones who create most of the difficulties by constantly resorting to major ‘drama’, totally exaggerating the impact of minor body contact or pretending to have been fouled when nothing really happened. Such behavior should be punished more strongly, because if the players have nothing to lose by using such methods, they will never be discouraged. But being certain enough to be ready to punish is a difficult situation for the referee. I hope our top referees in handball see how damaging such methods can be and therefore feel encouraged to be alert in observing the theater and strong in punishing it.

Another disputed situation involves ‘handball’. Even the expert commentators seem confused about the rules and do not know how to distinguish between ‘intention’ and ‘advantage’. The concept of ‘natural body position’ also enters into the equation. We probably have a clearer or simpler situation in handball, but it also seems that recent rules changes have helped reduce the controversy in our case. Moreover, the punishment for ‘hands’ in football can be more drastic than what is typical in the case of ‘foot’ in handball.

Overall, the main observation concerning the refereeing involves a lack of consistency. There has not been a ‘clear and common line’ among the whole group of referees, especially as regards the personal punishments given. One would have thought that the group of 24 referees who are used in South Africa would be more synchronized, as they have been used over and over in youth World Championships and in other international events in recent years. We do not want to see ‘robots’ but, just like in handball, major differences between referees cause major problems for the teams who do not know what to expect and have a hard time adapting quickly in each game. The IHF and the continents are increasingly working continuously with selected groups of referee couples, so one would hope that the difficult aspect of consistency will gradually see improvements in handball, but as recently as in EURO 2010 it was a definite issue, so it will present the IHF with a challenge for the 2011 WCh.

Finally, I feel I need to point to one particular situation where we now for many years have been better off in handball, and where I find it absurd that our counterparts in football are too stubborn to follow our example. This involves a situation where a player is injured on the field also in the absence of a foul and a free-kick. To avoid the ‘drop ball’ restart, the players feel obliged to send the ball out over the side line, whereupon the opponents are expected to use the throw-in to get the ball back to the team that had it. This act of ‘sportsmanship’ is typically applauded by the spectators. In handball, in similar circumstances, we simply let the team keep the ball after a restart with a free-throw, and a restart with an indirect free-kick would clearly be a feasible solution in football. FIFA seems to agree, but they find it ‘too strange’ on grounds of principle to use a free-kick if there has been no infraction…

Good luck FIFA with the rest of the World Cup, and please try to set us a better example during the remainder of the event!!!