Apropos the Olympics – Part 1: Men’s handball

As explained below, Hungary stopping Serbia may have been critical to the outcome of the men's competition

Some of you may have noticed that I left it to John Ryan to do all the reporting during the second week of the Olympics. The reason is that, after having been ‘glued to’ TV and computer during the first week, following almost all the handball games and a whole lot of other things, I went ‘undercover’ during the second week. I spent that time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, mostly to attend an opera festival, but also having the opportunity to follow some Olympic coverage among ordinary sports fans, who generally had little interest in handball (until I got to them…).

This gave me a slightly different perspective, especially after having been immersed in six previous Olympic handball tournaments as Technical Delegate, Referee Observer, Match Supervisor etc. But I have also tried to catch up, having already watched a dozen additional games after my return home. So I will now start a series of postings on different aspects, beginning today with some comments on the men’s competition. And I really appreciate the high-quality streaming provided by NBC which enabled me to follow games more closely than I ever did when being in attendance!

It was not a surprise that France won, and I am not going to say that they did not deserve it. But as I saw it, frankly, the overall quality of the men’s games was more modest than anything I can recall from many, many years of Championships. What I am saying is that there was no outstanding or dominating team and that at least six or seven teams had a real opportunity to dethrone the French, something which they all failed to do. Most of the top teams were simply not as strong as, for instance, in the 2011 World Championships. So in some sense, France won more ‘by default’. The best illustration may be that, in the quarterfinal against Spain, the French did not score their second goal until after 20 minutes; there should almost be a ‘rule’ disqualifying a team from moving on to become the ultimate winners after such a miserable performance, but the Spanish team accommodated them by collapsing!

The team that came the closest to taking advantage was the Swedes, a surprise silver medalist. I wrote earlier on that this might have been the chance for Croatia to return to the top position, and they also came close. But in the end it seemed that the newer generation did not get as much support from the Croatian old-timers as had been needed; in particular, Balic often seemed to be just a shadow of his old, dominant form. The Danes should have been a good bet to get a medal at least, given their strong showing in both the 2011 World Championship and in EURO 2012. But Mikkel Hansen did not show the necessary consistency, and if you get to play the rivals from Sweden in a quarter-final, then anything can happen.

The ones who must have felt particularly frustrated were the Icelandic handball fanatics, not just because handball matters so much to them and because they were the sensation in 2008. After all, they won their group by being the only team capable of beating France, but ironically that may have been their biggest ‘mistake’! It meant that, as group winners, they were bound to play a quarter-final against the Serbia-Hungary winner. And of course, to the horror of Iceland, the Serbs collapsed in that game as they had somehow done the whole week, leaving Iceland to face their nemesis from so many Championships and qualifying games in the past, the Hungarians. And sure enough, this became their stumbling block yet again, moreover after double overtime. My guess is that Iceland would have been able to handle both the Serbs and Swedes, so we were in a sense deprived of a repeat final Iceland-France, with a chance for the Vikings to seek their revenge from 2008.

What about the non-Europeans? Well, it was envisaged from the outset that Tunisia and Argentina would have to fight it out for a lone slot in the quarterfinals, and this is also how it worked out. From the early rounds, I had sensed that Argentina might have a chance to outsmart and outrun the Tunisians in that battle, as some of the Tunisian top players had looked just a tad slow. But it turned out that the more experienced Tunisians drove their opponents into losing their patience and normal rhythm, regrettably in part through cynical methods that were not sufficiently prevented or punished. There is no award for ‘dirtiest’ player, but Gharbi would surely have been a strong candidate. The Tunisians used the same approach in the quarter-finals against Croatia, but in the end it was not enough.

Returning to the French, what was it that helped them prevail in the end? Well, I was really put off by the totally unwarranted arrogance displayed at the award ceremony and in subsequent interviews. Their ‘Bolt imitation’ and their statements that they had shown the skeptics that the older players were not too old, were really misplaced. There was ONE veteran, goalkeeper Omeyer, who rescued them in the late stages, together with the emerging stars Accambray and Barachet. Yes, Narcisse and Fernandez sometimes had an impact through their experience, but especially Karabatic should refrain from taking too much credit.

Finally, if I describe the level of individual brilliance and team cohesiveness as generally lacking among the top teams, how come that there was still such a (justified) excitement both among the spectators in the arena and for the TV/internet broadcasts? Well, what combines with technical quality to make for excitement is of course the suspense that comes with closely matched teams and narrow wins. This was amazingly common, in the final group games and especially in the quarterfinals. Two of them were won by one goal, and in the other two games the two-goal margin was secured in the final moments. This trend continued in the semi-finals and the final. Of course, this aspect is particularly important given the large proportion of handball novices among the local spectators. So, all in all, good propaganda for our sport was created.