The U.S. Nationals – the good and the bad

the 'good old days'  -- will we see them again any time soon?

the ‘good old days’ — will we see them again any time soon?

In 1975 I attended the U.S. Nationals for the first time, having moved over from Sweden the previous year. It was a bit of a ‘culture shock’, even though I had clearly expected things to be rather different from what I had been used to. The format of the event was quite small, but most of the teams showed handball skills. There were virtually no referees, and the few of us who had this as our main task had to handle a lot of games. Gradually, the Nationals grew in scope, to something roughly similar to what we have today, with two divisions on the men’s side and one relatively homogenous women’s bracket. The number of referees continued to lag in comparison, so the workload was really a bit too much. Both players and referees seemed worn out when the day of the finals arrived.

But two things stood out in those days of the 1970s and the 1980s. First, there was really a very special ‘family’ or ‘pioneer’ atmosphere. Perhaps this was simply because the players and officials had gotten to know each other, but it was undoubtedly also due to the often primitive conditions and the sense that we were fighting against the odds as true amateurs and beginners in a country focused on professional and big-business collegiate sports. When I compare with those days, it is entirely positive to notice that the family/pioneer aspect is still there. This was even noticed and commented on by our visiting world class referees from Germany, whose services had been offered by the IHF. They are used to a more hard-nosed and cold atmosphere from their games and tournaments in Germany and Europe, so they felt it was refreshing.

The second thing that was noticeable in the old days was the contrast between the ‘home-grown’ players and coaches and those with a handball background from elsewhere. As we moved into the 1980s and 1990s, the number of talented players with eligibility for our U.S national teams increased a lot, and this was also reflected in the strength and competitiveness of our national teams. And some of the medal round games in the national championships were high caliber match-ups with predominantly American players. So it seemed that the optimism from earlier years had been justified, and personally I felt glad and privileged to have been able to follow this progress. But when I looked around in Reno, I really started wondering. Because it seemed that while the number of ‘pioneer’ teams from around the country might have increased, the top-quality handball, the great handball moves, were mainly due to either the influx and influence of players from abroad or the instincts of players who used to be really good and now remained rather competitive. The match-up in the men’s ‘Elite’ final illustrates that.

So while it is entirely positive that the ‘family’ atmosphere of an annual rendez-vous is still there, is it not rather frustrating that this may in part be the result of a lack of progress over the last 20-30-40 years? Should we not have reached a stage of being more ‘business-like’, with a true ‘Elite’ event drawing spectators and media coverage? Was it just a blip on the chart when we were so competitive internationally and when the talent pool seemed to grow so quickly in the 80s and the 90s? Well, when I listened to today’s energetic and optimistic handball supporters in Reno, it was as if I heard their predecessors from the 70s and 80s all over again, and it was as if they were not even aware of what we once had but seem to have lost just as quickly! And how can it be that some of the stars from the 90s are still able to fight their way to the medals? Where are all the talents who were assumed to be coming up to replace the old-timers. And here we are again talking about the need for patience and a longer-term perspective…

Of course, I can only admire those who seem ready to do the dirty work of achieving change, whether they never knew the ‘good times’ or whether they did and are prepared to get back there again. And I do not want to compete with John Ryan’s great efforts to review systematically our past experience and to analyze possible strategies and methods for accelerating our progress despite the lack of resources. But I do get concerned when I hear the litanies and excuses that involve the impossible task of keeping up with our PanAmerican rivals. Of course the Brazilians and Argentines seem impossible to beat right now; but how come this happened considering that we ‘trampled’ all over them in the 80s and 90s? And look at the progress of Paraguay and Venezuela in the PanAmerican Championship that just finished: Paraguay qualifying for the World Championship with a base in handball that does not even match that of small region of our country! Venezuela being competitive despite the reality that handball did not exist in that country less than a decade ago! Could the Cuban coaches they borrowed really be that fantastic?

But do not take me for a whiner or a pessimist! I knew what to expect in Reno and I still enjoyed it. It is just that if someone had told me in 1975, or 1984, or 1993, that this is what it would look like in 2013, then I would not have been ready to believe them and I most likely would not have cared to hang in there. But then there is my fanatic interest in handball refereeing, the awareness that our small group of dedicated referees have a thankless task without many opportunities to improve throughout the year. So as long as my services are still wanted, I will try to offer my support and, yes, I will enjoy the family atmosphere. On the other hand, I am no longer bothering to speculate about what it will take, and how long it will take, before U.S. handball is at the top in PanAmerica again and competitive across the globe.