This is common topic for discussions before, during and after a Championship. Clearly, each continent wants to protect its rights and its participation. Of course, there are many different views about the underlying principles. Should we try to get as close as possible to having the 24 best teams in the world, or should we recognize that this is a World event where each continent must have a chance to take part and be seen? What is the right balance?
The debate tends to start when the qualification events are finished, also in other continents but especially in Europe. There are always some “traditional” powers that fall by the wayside, like Russia, Slovenia, or Switzerland in the case of 2011. How could it be that they are “left out” while some “clearly weaker” teams from other continents get to participate…? And then the discussions resume when the draw of the Championship groups become known: how could it be that this team from continent X is ranked so high and gets such a favorable draw, while that other team from continent Y gets such a difficult group because of its lower ranking etc.
Then the event starts and some seemingly unexpected results are noted. How could it be that Austria is showing such weak form in comparison to what they did in the 2010 EURO? And how come that both Egypt and Tunisia are so mediocre? And what happened to Slovakia after their seemingly promising start? Is it really possible that Asia does not have a better men’s team than Korea? And what happened to Romania’s expected return to the top? Of course, the Australians are fun to watch, but when will they ever win a game again?
I am sure that I will set myself up for screams of protest, but my focus is inevitably on the quality of the weaker European participants. The Europeans are so fond of noting that the European Championship with its 16 teams is tougher than a World Championship, “because there are no teams from the other continents!” But did Austria, Romania and Slovakia really did bring any qualities that we needed to see in a World Championship, so was there really any justification for their taking up spaces?
In my opinion, we need to make sure that at least the top 12 teams are all present and get a chance to compete for the top positions, but beyond that it is the really the non-European countries who are more in the need of being present. They do not have a strong equivalent of the European Championship and they need this one chance to compete in a top event. By contrast, Europe’s teams number 12-16 belongs in their continental top events, but that should really be enough for them.
Immediately the Europeans will ask: but which other teams deserve to replace the weaker Europeans? Well, the reality is that handball is perhaps currently where football was 20-30 years ago. At the most, the other continents in most years have about two teams each that are really (or reasonably) competitive. In football you can easily find four or five. So perhaps the real answer is that nobody else deserves those extra slots. Perhaps we moved to fast to 24 teams and perhaps 20 would be about right. Of course, the problem is that 20 does not allow for an attractive format. Realistically, 24 is here to stay for a while.
So please be patient, and in a couple of weeks I will come back with some ideas for a compromise solution regarding a new format and a new distribution of slots! But do not relax, Europeans, because you might not be happy, and do not relax Australian friends. (Perhaps I might join those who say that your only way of getting real respect is to make the same change as in football and join the Asian qualifications…).