Olympic Qualifying: Serbia in and Poland out

All the participants on the men's side are now known

Before it all started, many of us surely found the qualifying groups rather predictable: Croatia and Iceland would have an easy time, Sweden and Hungary would be favorites but would have more of a struggle, and Spain should not realistically fail at home. And that is what we also could confirm last night. So today it all came down to ‘Serbia or Poland’. But this anticlimax, with only one place to be decided today, could have been avoided if the IHF had decided that, if two teams out of four will advance from each group, then it makes sense to have the teams seeded no. 2 and no. 3 play each other on the last day.

This would also have felt more fair and straight-forward. Now Serbia and Poland had to depend not just on their own performance but also on the attitude of two teams that already knew that they were in or out. This could easily lead to an issue of motivation that might have too much influence on the outcome. Poland had only defeated Algeria by one goal in a nervous game on the opening day. Today the Serbians knew that they could force Poland to gain at least a tie against Spain if they could beat Algeria with a margin of at least four goals. And they built a five-goal lead during the first 18 minutes, a lead which they then gradually increased in last part of the game. Vujin and especially goalkeeper Stanic were the key players today, in this comfortable 26-18 victory.

So Poland desperately needed to avoid a loss, while Spain could play in a more relaxed manner. And it very soon became clear that the pressure that goes with desperation was a handicap. But one should also emphasize that the Spanish team simply was too good today. From goalkeeper veteran Hombrados (who turned 40 during the weekend) to the strong defense and the very agile and powerful attack, the Spanish team looked superior throughout the game. An impressive start led to 4-0 and eventually 18-9 by half-time. Against a clearly demoralized Polish team, this was increased to a 14-goal margin close to the end, before the final score was settled at 33-22. Perhaps there is some sense of fairness in seeing Serbia qualify at Poland’s expense, because Serbia was the silver medalist in EURO 2012, while Poland was the last team to ‘sneak in’ and gain a place in a qualifying group, but I doubt that the Polish team will view it this way…

In other games today, Brazil saved the image of the non-Europeans by giving a very motivated performance and defeating FYRO Macedonia 28-27. The aggressive Brazilian defense caused the opponents to work hard for each goal instead of scoring easily from a distance. The teams took turns scoring in spurts of three to four goals but Brazil was mostly ahead throughout the game and deserved the victory. — Sweden clearly wanted to win in front of the home crowd, and a win would also yield what could be seen as a slight edge in the draw for the groups in the Olympics. The game was even, with Hungary enjoying a narrow 12-11 half-time lead, even though the Hungarians rested some key players. But Sweden showed will-power and turned a 20-21 deficit into a 26-23 victory during the final ten minutes.

Perhaps the Chileans had had some hope of finally confirming their nice impression from the 2011 World Championships. But although Emil Feuchtmann showed his strength with nine goals, the more balanced attack of Japan, combined with a tenacious defense, made the difference. Japan jumped to a 6-1 lead after 7 minutes, and thereafter they maintained a lead of at least four-five goals en route to a 33-26 triumph. — Iceland managed to stay very even with Croatia during the first half, which ended with 18-15 for Croatia. But during the second half there was really no doubt about the outcome. Croatia maintained a lead of about five-six goals throughout, although at the very end Iceland reduced to 31-28.

The implications for the seeding of the two groups in London are that the 12 teams will be placed as follows: level 1 – France and Spain; level 2 – Sweden and Croatia; level 3 – Iceland and Hungary; level 4 – Serbia and Great Britain; level 5 – Denmark and Argentina; level 6 – Korea and Tunisia. After the teams from all the other five levels have been drawn into two groups, Great Britain will be allowed to choose one of the groups. All the speculation is that Great Britain, unless they somehow want to avoid a confrontation flavored by ‘Falklands/Malvinas’, will choose the group that includes Argentina at level 5. This is in part because for Great Britain the chance to reach the quarterfinals clearly depends on the slim hope of beating the lower-ranked teams in their group.

So this is also what underscores the unfair treatment of World Championship silver medalists Denmark (as I have discussed in an earlier article), as they are bound to face four strong European teams in their group. And unless Great Britain voluntarily goes for a stronger opponent, it will also create suspense and inequities for the teams in level 1-3 and 6; from each level, one team would face Serbia + Denmark while one team will face Great Britain + Argentina!

Finally, after this criticism, credit should at least be given to the IHF for very efficient results service throughout the three game days.

Please note change from initial version: it appears that the IHF has changed the seeding for London to a more logical approach in one particular respect, compared with the version which they briefly published in February on the IHF web page. It has now been confirmed that Iceland (as a higher ranked team) is correctly at level 3, while Serbia is at level 4. By contrast, the mistreatment of Denmark remains. (I had initially reflected the previous IHF version which would have improperly put Serbia at level 3 and Iceland at level 4).