Lack of progress by non-European national teams hurts the image of handball and the IHF

it is too tough to do it alone; the top non-European teams need help from the IHF

it is too tough to do it alone; the top non-European teams need help from the IHF

In one of my articles about the Men’s World Championship, I noted as a particular disappointment that the non-European teams yet again failed to show signs of catching up with the top teams from Europe. All the teams in the quarter-finals were European, and only Brazil came really close to winning their game in the round of 16. Tunisia and Egypt advanced from the group stage but did not match some of their best performances from the past.

Considering that in most years Europe only has 10-12 really strong teams, there should be room for a few non-Europeans to make their mark. It is not good enough to be about equal with teams such as Montenegro, Belarus or Macedonia. Another observation is that there are no new teams from outside Europe who seem ready to get to the very top. Korea are not as solid on the men’s side as they have been among the women, and Argentina were unable to follow up on their surprising performance two years ago. Even the IHF President publicly expressed his disappointment specifically with Argentina.

Of course, someone might suggest that, as long as we have a sufficient number of good teams to make the quarter-finals exciting and of high caliber, it should not really matter where these teams come from. But this would be a flawed reasoning in the case of a World Championship. One important point is that we also have European Championships every two years, currently with 16 teams, and the impression is that these are events that are more homogenous in quality, leading to suggestions that they are a stronger event than the World Championship. Particularly at a time when there are loud voices to the effect that the competition calendar must be reduced, it is not a good sign if the World Championship can be seen as a secondary event.

But this is not even the main point, as I see it. We all want handball to be a truly global sport and one of the most important and popular Olympic sports. But this is not an image that is easy to maintain in the absence of really strong participants from several continents. What would a football World Championship be in the absence of the perennial contenders from Argentina and Brazil and the other South Americans? And here we have gradually found competitive teams from Africa, Asia, and even North/Central America. The situation in basketball is not very different. Even icehockey thrives on account of the transatlantic rivalries.

Unlike the IHF President, I do not want to be too harsh in a case such as Argentina, even if I have some understanding for his reaction. I know how difficult it is to create the necessary foundation to bring a national team to the very top level, not because the nation is located outside Europe but because there is no tradition or culture for our sport. It is meaningless to discuss why football has managed to become truly global; we have to deal with the realities we have. I have seen it first-hand after moving from Sweden to USA almost 40 years ago. Instead we need to look ahead, and focus on the scope for changes that would be both quick and solid.

Considering how difficult a task this is, also for countries with sports traditions and some government support, it is not realistic to say that the responsibility should rest exclusively with the individual federations. It also has to be a responsibility for the IHF because, as noted above, it certainly is in the interest of the IHF. But one needs to recognize that ‘politically’ this is a sensitive issue. A lot of countries in each non-European continent need help at the grassroots level to get handball established. This is an obvious and non-controversial role for the IHF, and the only concern is that more resources should overall be spent on this. But it is a different matter if one suggests that the IHF also needs to help in a tangible and forceful way in the case of those nations who are already among the best in their continent and manage to qualify for most World Championships.

It would seem that such countries have shown that they are somewhat capable of helping themselves and should not be priority recipients of support from the IHF, when there are so many other needs. However, I would still argue that, at any given point in time, it is critical to give further support to precisely those nations who have already shown that they have the talent and the determination to get to the top. Everyone would benefit from a policy and project under which they got that final push that gets them to the very top and keeps them there.

We are talking about countries and federations who have already made a major effort and sacrifice to get where they are; they are not ‘free-loaders’ and they deserve support. Neither the Europeans, who see them as potential rivals, nor the lower-ranking non-Europeans, should be envious and consider such an approach to be unfair. The assistance should only be provided for a certain period of time, and it should not be provided in the form of a blank check. Much of the help could be in the form of providing these national teams with the opportunities for frequent high-level competition that would make them more experienced and stable. So I am urging the IHF, with the collaboration of the continental federations, to consider this new approach to get our World Championships and our sport to be truly global at the elite level!