Champions League: Hand vs. Foot

Rajoy and Merkel -- are they betting on the outcome of Champions League?

Rajoy and Merkel — are they betting on the outcome of Champions League?

We are right now at the semi-final stage in football, with some rather amazing German victories this week. In handball, this weekend will offer the return legs of the quarter-finals. This provides a basis for some interesting comparisons and some thoughts about the similarities and differences.

I spent some time review general sports sites on the internet, from outside both Germany and Spain. It was striking, but not surprising, that the football battles drew attention of a magnitude perhaps ten times greater than that afforded to the handball match-ups. Very little was offered about the handball games in countries beyond those directly affected. By contrast, the football got a huge amount of space, with input from football experts, general sports writers and blogging fans. It does remind us in handball that we are not quite in ‘the same league’, as far as media attention, spectator interest, sponsor money and general newsworthiness is concerned. And I do not think we can use the excuse that in football they are already in the semi-finals, while we in handball are just in the quarter-finals…

Of course, we may have a particularly intriguing situation in football this year, with a pair of German-Spanish match-ups. One might think that this means the English and Italian fans would lose interest, but that does not seem to be the case. And for several years we have now had precisely the same rivalry in handball, where only a handful of teams from other countries have had a chance to make an inroad. Whether it is good or bad to have the two superior Spanish teams being drawn against each other in a handball quarter-final is not so clear, but the draw at least ensured that we will have both German and Spanish participation in the ‘Final Four’, something that otherwise might not be so certain, as Kiel is in for a real battle at Veszprem to try to ensure their spot. And there are several comments about the peculiarity of having both sports dominated by clubs from the probably economically strongest country and one of the countries that is really balancing on the edge of the precipice.

The games played in recent days illustrate the obvious impact of the refereeing on games of such high visibility and importance. Fortunately for football, the results were rather one-sided, as there were several controversial situations and decisions. And it seems it always comes back to the same thing: penalty-kicks given or not given, and goals scored from a ‘suspected’ offside position. From my reading the comments of both neutral and biased handball voices, I feel I get confirmation that there may be many more disputed situations in each handball game, but because of the enormous number of referee decisions in a game, a few ‘bad calls’ do not tend to have such an impact, unless it involves a ‘last-minute’ goal or something really conspicuous. The comments I picked up tended to involve more general trends, such as ‘accusations’ of inconsistencies, general leniency in punishments, or not getting the balance right between attacker and defender. Perhaps this could make you think that the life of the football referee is tougher. But I am not sure what creates the biggest pressure, the huge number of observations and subjective decisions in handball, or the awareness that if one of the much fewer big decisions in a football game is wrong, then it is quite likely going to affect the outcome.

This also relates to the issue of new methods and techniques for the referees and the utilization of modern technology. In football, we have had an awkward disagreement between FIFA and UEFA, where FIFA now prefers to move ahead with goal-line technology, while UEFA believes more in having two assistant referees on the goal-line (who seem to be strangely uninvolved). The problem is that this focuses primarily on ‘goal vs. no goal’. But as I noted earlier, this is not the most frequent area of controversy. I think the referee can really see most penalty-kick situations quite well, but instead it becomes a matter of ‘fairness’ and courage. The one I feel really sorry for is the ‘linesman’. The offside rule has been made more complicated, although I believe all the top ‘linesmen’ know the rule perfectly ‘on the drawing board’. But it is not as easy as you think to anticipate or react and be exactly in the right spot at the right time. In handball, the claims for video review and other new approaches are less loud, because most handball people know that there are really very few decisions that realistically lend themselves to review. Instead one could perhaps focus on some possible rules changes that would make some decisions ‘less subjective’, but personally I believe more in improved positioning and ability to observe what happens. While I do not seriously argue for a third referee, I do believe that viewing the situations ‘between 6 and 9 meters’ is more appropriately done from the side and not from behind.

So let us enjoy the final stages in the Champions League of handball and football, and perhaps this will also lead to some interesting new observations and conclusions in the end!