Following Cuba’s short period of glory in the late 1990s, culminating with an 8th place in 1999, PanAmerica’s representation has mainly been a matter of Argentina and Brazil. But Argentina never placed better than in the 15th-18th range, despite the sensational triumph in 2003 against Croatia who later went on to win the gold medals that year. And Brazil often got the upper hand in the PanAmerican finals against Argentina, but in the World Championships they had to be content with positions in the range 16th-24th.
So it was really a special moment, especially for Argentina but also for PanAmerican handball as a whole, when Argentina now managed to qualify for the main round in Sweden and then went on to finish 12th. And to make it clear, it was not a fluke that gained this position; it could easily have ended even better! Already in the preliminary round, where Argentina shocked the handball world with a 5-goal win against hosts Sweden, they could have brought one or two more points with them to the main round. They lost 23-24 against Poland, in a game where only the lack of experience made them come out at the losing end. Similarly, both a one-goal loss against Serbia and an overtime defeat against Germany could easily have been turned into victories.
But the main thing is that Argentina really played a very attractive handball, with a sophisticated and quick-footed offense and a spirited and tenacious defense that frustrated most opponents. I heard spectators and TV commentators expressing amazement over the abilities of the young team from Argentina. And their relative youth and lack of international experience is what both make their success this time and their prospects for the future so remarkable. Their top scorer, Federico Fernandez is 21, and their great trio playing club handball for Torrevieja in Spain is also very young (Diego Simonet 21, Sebastian Simonet 24 and Federico Vieyra 22). Another outstanding contributor was the goalkeeper Matias Schulz who is 28. Perennial team captain Andres Kogovsek is the contrast at 35.
It is clear that the performance of Argentina was an eye-opener for many, and that it will help increase the respect for PanAmerican handball. Brazil was clearly not at their usual level this time. They were missing several key players, including their main star Bruno and their top goalkeeper. As a result, the Brazilians were somewhat resigned to a modest outcome and tried instead to integrate several younger players. One could even say that they used a World Championship as a preparation for the upcoming PanAmerican Games in October, where the continent’s one and only automatic slot for the 2012 Olympics is at stake. And the Brazilians know now that they must be at their absolute best to have a chance to knock off Argentina. That will be quite a duel in Guadalajara! But for the first time PanAmerica might have a serious chance of qualifying TWO men’s teams for the Olympics, by also making good use of the subsequent qualification tournament.
The third PanAmerican team participating in Sweden was Chile, much to the delight of the numerous Chilean immigrants in Sweden. Clearly they would have a long way to go to reach the level of Argentina and Brazil. But unlike some previous Championships where the performance of the No. 3 team was negative PR for the continent, this time the Chileans showed a bit more. They played in an optimistic style and showed a relatively more advanced type of handball, with at least 6-8 players showing good technical and tactical skills. Especially the Feuchtmann brothers took the opponents and the spectators by surprise. It seems that the Chileans might be able to establish themselves as medal favorites in upcoming men’s events in PanAmerica. Of course, there is some hope that the Cuban government one day will resume the support of their team and that the ‘North Americans’ will return to old levels, but the other contenders will probably find it difficult to remove the Chileans from the medal podium.