The pressure on the players in a World Championship

One of the proud statements from the IHF apropos this topic was that this time there had been an additional rest day inserted, in recognition of the concerns about fatigue and related issues.  The twelve teams who played in the Main Round typically had to play eight games in twelve days.  For the majority of them there was also travel on one of the rest days.  This is obviously a somewhat more intensive schedule than during the normal club season, but it is indeed a slight improvement over schedules in the past.

So how could one then summarize the different aspects related to the participation in World Championship for elite players who are already expressing concerns about the impact of the overall competition schedule?   Well, there are indeed several different aspects.  One involves the different practices in different countries regarding an adequate break in the league schedule, not just to accommodate the World Championship as such, but also to ensure adequate preparation and recuperation time for the players on the national teams.  Here it seems that most countries value the role of the national team enough to allow a rather generous gap in the league schedule.  But the opposite was really true in the case of Germany, where one could even observe an accelerated schedule immediately prior to what must be seen as a rather minimal break.

Then there is the tension between clubs and national teams, with the players themselves caught in the middle, regarding the fitness of a rather substantial number of key players, whose readiness to participate in the World Championship was debated heatedly up to the last moment.  Some clubs felt that there was undue pressure on players who were not really healthy, and some national teams clearly held the opposite view.  And sure enough, some players who had been noted as being only marginally fit indeed suffered relapses or new problems through their participation in Sweden.   In some cases it is suggested that players kept playing even when they perhaps should have been kept off the court.  There are now accusations about carelessness and inadequate concern for the longer-term health of these players.

Other players, whose health was never an issue prior to the event, happened to suffer the kind of injuries in Sweden that inevitably will happen during a period of intensive and hard-fought competition.  And of course it involved some players who are key figures on their club teams.  It may be of some consolation that the IHF for the first time provided insurance to keep the clubs whole, in terms of salary payments for periods during which the players are now unavailable for club duty.  But this is likely to be a limited consolation for teams who are now entering the critical stage of both the league season and continental competitions such as the final phases of Champions League etc.

Another new feature was the permission to allow each team to use all its 16 players in each game, instead of having to rely on 14.  While this may have created some peace of mind for the coaches, who had maximum flexibility in using their troops in each game, it is not likely to have had much impact in terms of reducing playing time for the star players or reducing the likelihood that risks with semi-injured played were avoided.   For the most part, four-five players were sitting on the bench rarely getting out of their warm-up clothes and setting a foot on the court.  The team will simply rely on their key players.  In fact, a couple of experienced coaches commented that the only benefit of the new regulation was really that it helped avoid the awkward decision of which two players would have to be placed as spectators in the stands.

But there is one aspect that seemed to be relevant.  When many teams had players unavailable due to injuries during, or from before, the event, it seems clear that those with the “deepest” teams had an edge.  They were able to integrate newer players who were able to play important roles throughout the Championship, and/or they could trust their marginal players so fully that they put them in for entire games or long portions without any risk.  This meant that they were able to rest their stars in some games where the outcome or the goal difference was not so important.  In this way, as the Championship came down to the final stages, there was a noticeable difference between teams that had constantly had to rely on five-six players and those who had been able to spread out the burden somewhat.

However, generally speaking, one cannot get around that the stars are the stars.  These are players that both the national teams and the club teams must draw on.  And these are the players whom the spectators and TV/web viewers love to watch.  They are the ones whose skills help create the necessary excitement around our sport.  One can come up with new regulations and fine-tuning in the schedule; but in the end we must realize that there is a limit to the intensity with which our biggest assets can be utilized.