On Friday it will be determined in a ceremony in Goteborg how the 4 groups of 6 teams each will be composed. This tends to be the moment where the speculation about the outcome of the Championship gets started in a serious way. We in THN also intend to ‘stick our necks out’ and offer our early predictions.
While media love this kind of speculation, in fact even now before the draw has taken place, the coaches of the participating teams tend to prefer to downplay the importance of the seeding and the draw. Media talk about potential ‘dream groups’ and ‘groups of death’, while the coaches note that ‘in the end we will need to be able to beat all the strong teams to become champions’.
Yet there is some debate: for instance, is it more important for a top team to avoid a strong ‘number 4’ team in the group, so that the risk for an early elimination is reduced? But who is then a strong ‘number 4’ (or ‘number 5’) team? This is sometimes very hard to predict, especially when it involves the better non-European teams. And is it perhaps more important to avoid certain other top teams in the neighboring group, the one that will be combined with your group in the main round etc. We will come back to this after the draw!
Sweden has organized the Men’s World Championship three times before, in 1954, 1967 and 1993. I should know, as I was there on all three occasions, but the reality is that the first time I was too young to have any memories. On the second occasion, I already had a few years experience as a local referee, and in 1993 I came to Sweden as a member of the IHF Rules & Referees Commission. So I certainly hope to be there next January…
But it may be more relevant to you to be reminded about the results in the past, and the evolution it shows. In 1954 there were only six teams, and Sweden used the home court advantage to get the gold medals ahead of Germany and Czechoslovakia. The 1967 event took place during a strong period for the Czechs, so they moved up to the top position. Denmark and Romania got the other medals. There were a total of 16 teams, with Canada, Japan and Tunisia representing their respective continents; but only Japan managed to win a game, against Norway.
In 1993, the Russians fielded a very strong team and won the final easily against France. Sweden got the bronze medals ahead of Switzerland. Spain had then joined the top group and won 5th place against Germany. Egypt got the 12th and final place in the main round, while Korea and USA (with a certain John Ryan on the team) found themselves at the bottom of the rankings. Well, let’s not blame that entirely on John… But at least I can say that I watched him and the USA team play against Sweden in my old home town.
Goteborg will again be supporting the Swedish team in the preliminary round, in the now aging but large Scandinavium arena. Another group will be split between the ‘twin cities’ of Norrkoping and Linkoping, boasting relatively large and modern arenas , which admittedly exist thanks to presence of icehockey teams and not because these cities are handball hotbeds. It is worth noting that Stockholm is not among the host cities this time. It remains the capital of Sweden, so that’s where royal weddings take place and so on, but it is hardly the handball capital.
Handball has stronger traditions in the very south, where moreover three classic old handball locations now have new and modern arenas. Those in Lund and Kristianstad are smaller, whereas Malmo’s arena can hold over 12.000 spectators. This is where the final and one of the semi-finals will be played. And, much to the delight of the Danish team and their supporters, this is where they will play their matches in the preliminary round, just across the bridge from Copenhagen.
So pay attention to the draw, and we will be back and join you in the speculation afterwards!