Issues regarding seeding for Olympic handball tournaments

Please explain what Denmark did to deserve to be punished!?

The real purpose of this article is to emphasize that it is possible to combine clear principles with a little bit of practical judgment and that, above all, there should be no room for prestige in the handling of important matters. Moreover, as I noted in a recent posting, there is considerable room for improvement in the communications functions of the IHF. What is then causing me to offer these comments? Well, it is an issue that somehow IHF has preferred to keep rather hidden, namely the principles and procedures for the seeding of the teams that qualify for the men’s and women’s handball tournaments.


The seeding may be of considerable importance in placing a team in a group that is easier or more difficult, in terms of gaining one of the four top places (out of six) that give a place in the quarter-finals. When the concept of pre-Olympic qualifying tournaments was introduced for 2008, there was some controversy about how the seeding of teams qualifying directly for Beijing and those taking the route through qualifying groups should have been handled.

Accordingly, the IHF decided to review the issue and they reached agreement through a decision in the Council and the Executive Committee in 2010! But they ‘forgot’ to announce the decision… So it only became a public issue in the last couple of weeks, following the EURO 2012, when the European champion Denmark found out about their situation with respect to seeding. They were not happy and they told IHF so. As a result, IHF was not just unhappy, but tried to combine a factual announcement with a response to Denmark in the IHF web site. The explanation was mostly unclear and incomplete, and there as an anger directed at Denmark that seemed improper for a public statement. So what was then the specific issue?

The IHF had decided that the “top four teams in the 2011 World Championship should be given priority“. This would involve France, Denmark, Spain and Sweden. But as only France was an automatic qualifier for London, the indirect way of prioritizing the other three teams was to say that the winners of the three qualifying groups where these teams would normally be placed as hosts would benefit from seeding as teams 2-4 for London. Then would come the runners-up from the three qualifying groups as seeds 5-7 (which would quite possibly be the teams placed 5-7 in 2011), with the host Great Britain inserted as No. 8 (the kind of special treatment that the hosts tend to get). And that would leave the four continental champions for seeds 9-12. Personally, I find this quite logical and sensible!

However, all the people involved in the IHF decision-making overlooked one possibility, namely that one of the seeds 2-4 (or 5-7) might in fact ALSO become continental champion. This was the case with Denmark. So, because the IHF did not have (and did not hasten to insert) a supplementary clause to cover this special situation), they simply placed Denmark as a number 9 seed, as the champions from the highest ranked continent. In other words, having explicitly stated that Denmark as silver medalist in 2011 should be given priority with ranking number 2, the IHF in fact punished Denmark for also having won the European Championship. Having said above that I could fully support the IHF’s basic principle, I am even more firm in saying that this kind of misguided application, totally lacking in common sense and fairness, simply should never be allowed.

In a special clause, Denmark should have been allowed to keep seed number 2, with all the other teams moving down one position. I cannot imagine that anyone would find this unfair or improper. But now instead we have a situation where Denmark is moved down seven positions, and all the teams that were behind Denmark in the 2011 World Championship and in the EURO 2012 will be ahead of Denmark if they advance from their qualifying group. This includes, for instance Serbia (beaten by Denmark in the final of EURO 2012 and 10th in 2011) and even more conspicuously Poland. The only reason Poland was given a slot in a qualifying group for London (after having finished 9th in EURO 2012 and 8th in 2011) was precisely that Denmark no longer needed their slot because they qualify directly as European champions.

So, while I do not know exactly how Denmark argued their case, I fully understand why they wanted to appeal their situation to the IHF. Of course, after the rather insulting statement from the IHF on its web page, I could have foreseen that there would now be far too much prestige involved, and that if the IHF seriously wanted to listen to the Danes, they would never have used such a tone in public. But DHF president Bertelsen nevertheless went to Basel to meet with Moustafa today. As Bertelsen explains it, Moustafa was sympathetic and told him that he would ask the IHF Competition Commission (which was/is meeting in Basel) to review the matter. This left Bertelsen rather optimistic, he told Danish media.

But Bertelsen did not even get more halfway home before he found that the final IHF decision was negative. And to make it even more absurd, supposedly the impression was given that the final word was that of the Competition Commission. Anyone who knows the inner workings of the IHF knows that a Commission does not really ‘decide’ anything, it recommends. The real decision is taken by the President possibly after consultation with the Executive Committee and/or the Council. In other words, if the President genuinely had wanted to support Denmark’s claim, he would have asked for the support of the Executive or Council. It would not happen that the Commission ‘overrules’ him. So when Bertelsen expressed satisfaction that the IHF President had at least listened to him, perhaps Bertelsen was diplomatic; more realistically, he might have had reason to be upset that the IHF President made him waste a trip to Basel… Because clearly there was no intention to change the initial decision!

IHF Announcement on seeding: (Note:  This announcement has been removed from the IHF Webpage)