The numbers look good, but what more is there to it?

Some time after the IHF Congress a few months ago, an old handball friend congratulated me because he had noted “the tremendous growth in PanAmerican handball”.  I did not quite understand what he was talking about, so he clarified that he heard about the huge number of new IHF member countries from PanAmerica which had been approved by the IHF Congress.  I decided to investigate the good news!

Soon I found that there had indeed been no less than 14 new member countries approved, and that eight of them were from PanAmerica.  But I must admit the list made me puzzled.  Of course, after all my years of involvement in the PanAmerican Team Handball Federation I am aware of the longstanding sense of frustration that handball has not caught on in the majority of the large number of countries in Central America and the Caribbean.  The contrast with football has been obvious and irritating.  I recently saw the list of match-ups in the football World Cup qualifying and I found, for example:  Grenada-Belize, Antigua & Barbuda-Curacao, and Surinam-Cayman Islands, with referees from St. Lucia, Barbados and Dominica. Quite impressive, because it is evidence of serious activity.

And now I found that the eight new IHF member countries were:  Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, and British Virgin Islands.  In other words, a grouping rather similar to that in football.  This sudden development intrigued me, so I spent some time contacting friends from these and neighboring places in the Caribbean.  Essentially, I was met by confused and puzzled responses.   Some helped me find my way to media indications that a handball federation was indeed registered, but virtually nobody managed to point me to any indications of handball activity.

Of course, I am aware that the requirements for establishing a federation are rather modest.  You need to be able to fill out forms explaining the structure of the federation, naming the people running it, accounting for the number of clubs and players (often at the youth level, and sometimes more in beach handball) etc.  And naturally the establishment of a federation is a first step to really make our sport take root, so there is certainly nothing wrong about having a structure in place to spread the word, to recruit players and to try to obtain some financing for a limited level of competition and education.   This is the reality of how to go about spreading our often unknown sport, slowly but surely.

BUT, I am really intrigued about what the plans of the IHF and particularly the PATHF are, now that these eight countries have been added to the membership.  It would have been normal to find some kind of proud media announcement, together with an indication of the general plans to help these countries with some kind of jump start.  After all, they are in a region where travel costs do not match those of Greenland teams going to Chile, and they could even be collaborating with each other in a synergetic effort to create competition and interest.  And both IHF and the PATHF should be able to provide material and teachers at the grassroots level to train players, coaches, referees and administrators.

I am raising the question with some degree of apprehension or even suspicion, because I have experienced in the past that the efforts often have fizzled out, once some brand new federations, without any handball traditions, have been signed up.  The countries have been left to their own devices and one has almost had the impression that it was mainly a ‘numbers game’.  In other words, it looked good to be able to show that the continent’s handball was growing.  And here I am not picking particularly on Panamerica and PATHF;  the trend has been the same everywhere.  Where the suspicions enter the picture is when the time comes for an IHF Congress.  IHF dutifully(?) provides the poor new members with the help they need to attend.  And these new and uninformed members are then in the hands of continental bosses when it comes to understanding how to use voting power, how to be loyal members of the continent, and how to show their gratitude to the existing regime.

So my point is: I wish the eight new member federations every success.  I hope to see them matching the level of activity from football, both at the grassroots level and in regional competition, in a not too distant future.  Indeed, I just regret that this is happening now, after my PATHF involvement is finished, because just perhaps I could have been of some help if it had happened some years ago.  But the progress will clearly not come about with the external support that I mentioned about above.  These federations will need a lot of help, so I hope the IHF and the PATHF will be serious about that this time.  Again, I am looking forward to hearing about the plans for an efficient and sustained effort!