When I was in Sweden for the World Championship, I cannot remember hearing anyone regretting that the Russian team was not participating. From a spectator standpoint, it is hard to remember when a Russian/Soviet team displayed the kind of attractive style of handball that today’s top teams show us. Russia was in 16th place in 2009. Their next opportunity now, on the men’s side, is the European Championship next January.
I should insert the comment that, contrary to what handball people around the world might think, despite Soviet/Russian successes at the international level, with national or club team, handball is NOT a major sport in Russia. I remember being told by their federation officials a few years ago, that handball is in fact not among the top 20 sports in the country. Possibly, the situation might be a bit better on the women’s side, due to traditions with strong coaching and a thin base of really outstanding talents from the youth level and on up.
Anyway, it seems now that Russia is determined to be back for the EURO 2012. The methods, however, may not be very fair and pleasant. There has been an outrage in Denmark this week, which has on the schedule home and away qualification matches between the two countries. For the match in Russia yesterday, the Danish team had some injury problems and needed to insert some reserve players. However, with the excuse of offices being closed due to some obscure and extended public holiday, the Russians simply informed that there was no possibility to provide a visa.
Things got worse, when it was discovered that three key players who are on the Flensburg club team would not be allowed to enter Russia either. The completely weird explanation was that these players, with their club team, had been to Russia very recently and could not now be allowed to enter Russia so soon again. It is not that crazy bureaucratic and despotic rules interpretations are so surprising in Russia, but it is understandable if the Danes really assumed that this was a machination specifically intended to weaken the Danish team. Danish protests did not help, and the EHF declared itself impotent.
It is rather awkward that this comes soon after a remarkable incident in the previous home game for Russia in the qualification event. In a game against Switzerland, where Russia had a narrow lead close to the end, the final chance for Switzerland was removed by an incorrect intervention by the EHF match supervisor, who ‘saw’ something that clearly did not happen and thus took away the ball from the Swiss and instead gave them a 2-minute suspension. The Swiss formally protested afterwards, and the protest was accepted by the first level in the EHF appeals mechanism. A replay was ordered.
Given the serious ramifications of that decision, concerning the fundamental rules principles involved, the EHF itself found it necessary to appeal to the second level. While emotionally one must sympathize with the Swiss sentiments, I have to state that such rules interpretations must be based on principles and not on sentiments. Accordingly, I must hope that EHF prevails, even if it means that Russia will have benefited from a mistake in its favor. Perhaps it will, regardless of the outcome, be a reminder to the EHF about the necessity of being extremely selective in nominating supervisors for games where intensive pressure in different forms can be anticipated…
Finally, it is ironic that the fourth team in the qualification group is Belarus. It may well turn out that Russia’s chances of qualifying will depend on the result of the final game, at home against Belarus. I would not want to be Danish or Swiss and have my hopes based on Belarus being given a chance to gain any points in that match-up…