Guest columnist, Altay Atli, is a lecturer in international relations and economics based in Istanbul, Turkey. Altay is a former handball player, a former handball manager, a former handball journalist and forever, a handball fan. His work involves a considerable amount of travel and the opportunity to see handball played in many parts of the world. In this article he reports on the recently completed Mediterranean Handball Championship and its emphasis on youth development.
Last week, Chieti, a small town in Central Italy a few miles away from the Adriatic Sea, hosted the Mediterranean Men’s Handball Championship. Eight countries littoral to the Mediterranean, namely Cyprus, Egypt, France, Italy, Libya, Montenegro, Tunisia and Turkey, took part in the event, which was won by Egypt after a penalty shootout thriller against Tunisia (36:34). The championship went largely unnoticed in international sports media, something that can be attributed to the fact that the championship was for under 17s. However thanks to the live streaming provided by the organizers a large audience could enjoy the quality of handball played in Chieti.
This championship makes us rethink the feasibility and the merits of regional events that include participants from more than one continental federation. At professional level international handball, each continental federation has its own busy schedule, which, when global events such as the world championships and the Olympic Games are also taken into consideration, seldom leave any space for regional events in a tightly packed calendar. This is why events like the quadrennial Mediterranean Games fail to attract the crème of the region’s handball to their ranks. Given the hectic schedule of professional sports, developed handball countries either prefer to take their reserve teams to such events or they do not participate at all. The most recent version of the Mediterranean Games, held in June 2013 in Mersin, Turkey, illustrates this trend. In the men’s competition, which was won by Egypt, handball giants like France and Spain did not even take part, while in the women’s competition, which was won by Serbia, developed countries (such as France) either did not participate or competed with junior teams. For instance, from the 16 players Serbia had in Mersin, only five made it to the roster that played the final of the World Championships in December.
In other words, at the senior/professional level, regional events such as those organized in the Mediterranean, do not offer a bright prospect. However, at a lower level, they can be meaningful. The Mediterranean Handball Confederation, which operates since 2003, organizes the Mediterranean Championships on an annual basis for both men and women, and these events are, as the web site of the confederation suggests, “preferably reserved to young athletes.” If the focus had been on senior teams, both the confederation and the championship could have been doomed to irrelevance in the face of the increasingly competitive and commercialized environment of professional handball. By targeting the youth, however, they can serve the sports in other, more purposive ways
First and foremost, the Mediterranean Championship can help the development of handball by providing talented young players with the opportunity to gain international experience. In Chieta, all the players, and particularly those from countries like Libya and Cyprus which do not have strong national competitions, gained high level competitive experience, while some of them including Egypt’s Hassain Anis, Tunisia’s Ghachem Oussama and Turkey’s Halil Ibrahim Ozturk, managed to win international recognition thanks to their successful performance. In the meantime, the championship also offered a platform for young referees to make a debut in international handball. The final match was umpired by the young Italian couple Francesco Simone and Pietro Monitillo, who are on EHF’s candidate referees list, and together with two more couples from Italy, two from France and one each from Turkey and Tunisia, they have taken an early important step in their careers. In brief, the Mediterranean Championship contributed and is likely to continue to do so for the development of handball by giving young players and referees the opportunity to perform at the international level and enter the spotlight.
Youth handball development in the Mediterranean is also important at a different level. The region in question has been going through a difficult period. Southern Europe is still suffering from a financial crisis and youth unemployment is a painful fact of this region. Northern Africa is undergoing a transformation in the post-Arab spring period and the youth is at the center of this process as well. The Asian coast of the Mediterranean, not represented in Chieti, is currently the most problematic part, with the civil war going on in Syria without an end in sight. Empowerment of the youth is a vital requisite for restoring stability in the region, and youth interaction through sports, culture and education, both within and between countries, is the key here. Handball cannot create miracles in this respect, but its contribution can be useful.