Handball’s anticlimactic weekend for national teams? Any hope for the ‘rising sun’?

Tunisia progressing nicely, but are they good enough?

John commented yesterday about the EHF Final Four, and the excitement that this event creates among handball fans, not just in Europe but worldwide. By contrast, and through unfortunate planning during this same weekend, IHF has what could or should be a really exciting event for women’s handball. Because what could be more interesting than seeing which teams grab the remaining six slots in the Olympic women’s handball tournament, joining Norway, Sweden, Brazil, Angola, Korea and hosts Great Britain!? But unfortunately, not even the IHF’s own web page is able to create much suspense or show much enthusiasm…

There are three groups of four teams each, and from each group the best two qualify for London. I have been impressed by the nice progress of Tunisian women’s handball in recent years, but is there really anyone who believes that Tunisia or the Dominican Republic would knock out Denmark or Russia in their group? That would be a sensation that would steal the thunder from the Final Four!

At least it seems that in the other two groups there will be a fight for the second spot. France playing at home will be hard to defeat, even in the absence of injured star player Pineau. So, while either them of might be strong enough to cause an upset against the hosts, I suspect that Montenegro and Romania will have to concentrate on fighting for the all-important second place. Romania must try to do so without their key player Neagu, and Montenegro may feel a boost from recent Champions League triumph of Buducnost. This will most likely be the most excited game of the weekend. It is hard to see that ‘the rising sun’, i.e., Japan will have much of a chance.

In the group played in Spain, it is conceivable that Croatia will be able to threaten the home team, but normally they would have to be content with winning the qualification by defeating the Netherlands. This team came into the qualifying event through the back door, having to rely on Angola to free up their qualifying position from the World Championship by winning the African Championship. But for the Dutch women it is an important PR and preparative opportunity, as they are hosting the next women’s European Championship in December this year. Argentina did not do well in last year’s World Championship and is not expected to be competitive.

So if things go according to plans, all the six remaining slots would go to European teams. This special qualifying event is, on paper, meant to give the other continents an additional chance to get someone into the Olympic tournament beyond their continental champions. But instead it is likely to confirm the European dominance beyond the ‘traditional’ powers of Korea, Brazil and Angola. One would hope that the IHF would see fit to put in a special effort in support of the ‘second tier’ of non-European teams, so that eventually the Olympics and the World Championships stop looking too much like European Championships!