USA-Canada – some further reflections

Once upon a time, more precisely on August 16, 1987, there was a fabulous women’s handball match played between USA and Canada. The match was the final in the PanAmerican Games in Indianapolis, and the result was 22-20 in favor of the home team. Until this day, it was probably the best women’s handball ever played between two PanAmerican teams. It is another story that, in terms of drama, it may have been overshadowed by the men’s final played a couple of hours later between USA and Cuba. Here the USA victory came in overtime, 34-32 after a fantastic battle. It was a special evening.

Yes, it is easy to become nostalgic when thinking back to such memorable events. And, somewhat unfairly, it is unavoidable to see last week’s USA-Canada encounters in the light of what happened 23 years ago. One begins to think about the trajectory for U.S. (and Canadian) handball that seemed realistic at that point, and one starts wondering about why we are where we are today. But I do not want to ruin the excitement from last week by looking back too much. Given the circumstances in which handball tries to make headway in the two countries today, there are several reasons to ‘view the glass as half full rather than half empty’.

I say this not just in the sense that each country got a team qualified for the 2011 PanAmerican Games, but because one could find some nuggets of hope for the future. The U.S women’s team may have had some luck in the sense that the Canadian opponents fielded many players who were brand new on the team and lacking in experience. Moreover, the Canadians did not even enjoy their traditional advantage in terms of physical strength and stature. But the U.S. team had to draw on several teenagers to combine with a number of older but not particularly experienced players. What made the difference in the end was some inspired goalkeeping in the second match (especially Natascha King) and some sudden ‘bomb throwing’ by Karoline Borg.

What do these two players have in common? Well, they are affiliated with well-known clubs in Denmark and Norway. So the idea of gaining experience abroad shows signs of promise, but the choice of setting has to be carefully thought out. And it is not enough to have just a small nucleus of well-trained players with serious match experience. Moreover, match experience is fine, but what really tends to do a team in is the lack of playing together as a team. Nothing else makes up for knowing each other on the court, having clear and well-established roles, and having familiar routines to fall back on in tight situations. This now has to be the key issue in preparing the team for the PanAmerican Games in October 2011. For instance, an abundance of tough practice matches next summer is a must.

Quite possibly the U.S. federation might have preferred to see the men’s team qualify, simply because the men’s team in some ways might be closer to be ready to do battle with the opponents in the PanAmerican Games. While the competition might be tighter on the men’s side, that are several other teams that depend even more on raw talent and physical strength. So the U.S. men’s team just might have the collective qualities and the individual stand-outs that could take a team to the semi-finals. There are not many other teams with a skilled trio such as Gary Hines, Adam El Zogby and Martin Clemons Axelsson. The crux would be to find reliable goalkeeping and good choices for complementary roles; and then again the team cohesiveness through opportunities to play together. One can only hope that the resources are available to allow this team to try to qualify through the ‘second chance’ tournament.

My colleague John has written several articles lately about the precarious state of the U.S. federation in financial terms and the resulting need for tough and controversial choices. The support from the USOC has been cut back etc., so the players have had to pitch in substantially. Believe it or not, the Canadians may still be somewhat envious, as they have no such support at all the next two years and will receive a meager $25.000 per year in government support the following three years. There is no equivalent of the U.S. Handball Foundation, and the national teams are totally self-funded, i.e., the players pay to play.

So perhaps it is against this background of shared sacrifices and a mutual respect that it was so refreshing to see the excellent spirit of sportsmanship last week. When the women have the slot decided on ‘more away goals’ after a tie in the aggregate score, and the final men’s game goes to overtime after identical wins for the home teams, then there are obviously serious battles on the court. But the fouls were typically caused by a flailing arm or a desperate lunge, not by a cynical tackle or nasty hit. And there were no tendencies to theatrics, protests or provocations. Congratulations!