In recent time there has been much debate about the international competition calendar and the excessive pressure on the top players. The risk for injuries and other health problems has been mentioned as a serious concern. It seems that, based on reports from many of the participating countries in the upcoming Men’s World Championship, there are already an unusual number of key injuries to reckon with. However, most coaches seem to take this in strides, noting that this is beyond their control and that back-up solutions always must exist. But it may become a factor in the tight competition for positions in the main round and in the semi-finals.
On the day before my departure for Sweden, I will take the risk of offering some predictions, on the basis of reports from teams, media analyses, and some of my own speculation. Starting with the group of the host country, which is generally viewed as the “easiest” one, I am not yet convinced that this will be another occasion where the home team excels. Many Swedish experts and fans also seem to be skeptical. The same doubts seem to affect the Polish team. So apart from the game between the two, it seems that Sweden and/or Poland might be in for a surprise in one of the other group games. The most obvious candidate for creating such a surprise might be Korea, who tend to be rather unpredictable on the men’s side. I also would not be surprised if Argentina were to be able to upset one of their European foes.
The other group on the same half of the draw includes two of the strong favorites, Denmark and Croatia. Personally, I would be not be surprised if these two teams do well both in the initial group and then also make their way through to the semi-finals. There should then be an interesting battle for the remaining main round slot between Serbia and Romania. The traditional powerhouse from Romania is trying to fight their way back to the top after many years in the doldrums. It is likely to be a close contest but I would not mind seeing the Romanians be successful here. There should be excitement also among the spectators in this group in Malmo and Lund, with a huge influx of Danish fans and a large pool of Balkan immigrants living in this part of Sweden. I also hope that Australia get good crowd support for their traditionally tireless efforts against stronger opponents.
The “group of death”, as the now so popular concept is, clearly must be the label deserved by the group seeing the top Europeans from Germany, France and Spain taking on Egypt and Tunisia. The French have been plagued by injuries, but I am convinced that their team is deep enough to do well, and Spain seems to have been able to prepare nicely without any distractions. Then one wonders if all the concerns expressed by the German coach Heiner Brand are part of efforts to keep a low profile or indications of genuine problems. If it is the latter, then the Germans may be the ones who have to worry about a surprise caused by one of the North African teams. In any case, I am prepared to believe, which would not be a very brave or original prediction, that both France and Spain are in a good position to advance to the semi-finals.
In the group where the Nordic powers of Iceland and Norway seem set to dominate, I am this time more ready to put my money on the Norwegians. Somehow I believe that they might be the “stealth” team having some success in the fight for a semi-final spot. Hungary seems to be in a weaker position this time, in part due to injuries, and it is hard to know if they will be able to conquer their Austrian neighbors. But I am not so convinced that Austria will be able to repeat their success from EURO 2010, now that they play away from home. So perhaps the shock in this group might be that Brazil will be the team grabbing the third place!?
Anyway, as I pull out my boots and heavy winter coat, I must say that I really do look forward to this event. It will be the first time in over 30 years that I will have the opportunity to experience a handball World Championship as a tourist and spectator, without the usual 18-20 hour workday and constant worries about the many aspects of the organization of the event. I will now be able to sit back and relax, enjoying the performances of teams and individual players. But I must admit that I will remain considerably interested in the performances of the referees and I do hope that this relatively young group of referees, many of whom are in a men’s World Championship for the first time, will live up to the expectations and contribute to a first-rate event with good PR for handball.