Oceania Disappears from the IHF’s Atlas

Australian men's team at the 2013 World Championships... Their last appearance?

Australian men’s team at the 2013 World Championships… Their last appearance?

Team Handball News contributor, Altay Atli, addresses the recent IHF decision to retroactively give Australia’s World Championship’s slot to Germany

The recent decision of the International Handball Federation (IHF) to exclude Australia from the upcoming 2015 World Championships in Qatar (despite the fact that it has won the Oceania Handball Nations Cup in April thus officially qualifying for the big event) and replacing it with Germany (which has failed to qualify by losing both play-off games in the European competition against Poland) has drawn significant criticism, and rightfully so. The official statement released by the IHF attempts to justify the decision on the grounds that “There is currently no Continental Confederation in Oceania recognized by the International Handball Federation. Hence, the IHF Council decided to allocate the spot reserved for this continent to another National Federation on the principle of a wild card.”

This is an extremely weak argument and hardly legitimate as it leaves many questions unanswered: If there was a problem with the status of Oceanian handball organization, why was the decision taken after all the continental qualifiers have been completed? If there was no recognized continental confederation in Oceania, how is it possible that Australian teams have been participating in world championships since 1999? Did it take the IHF sixteen years to realize that there is no continental confederation in Oceania? How can one explain to a national federation, which is a member of IHF since 1988, that there is no way for them to go to the world championships even if they win all of the qualifier matches? The IHF’s decision is plain wrong, and agonizingly disappointing, not only for the Australians, but also for the entire world handball community, as it is a serious blow against the efforts to develop handball into a world sport. It seems that Oceania does not appear in IHF’s world atlas any more.

There is, however, another side of the coin; and no matter how wrong IHF’s decision appears to be, we need to think about the rationale behind it. Handball in Oceania is far from being competitive at the world level. Beating New Zealand is usually enough for the Australians to make their way to the world championships; and they do so easily, in April they won the qualification games with 22:18 and 32:18. With all due respect to the efforts of Oceania’s handballers, who work very hard to develop the game in their part of the world, we must accept that it should not be that easy to earn a ticket to the world championships.

This is, of course, not the Australians’ fault; and also, this does not by any means justify the decision to strip the Australia’s handballers from their well-earned right to play in Qatar in 2015. The Australian Handball Federation can see the situation; in its official statement after the IHF decision the governing body of handball in the land down under announced: “We welcome proposals from the IHF in terms of the development of the Oceania region to ensure that our Continent achieves full recognition by the IHF and that a competitive team from Oceania can take its place at the World Championships in the quickest possible time.”

In other words, it is not about giving back Australia its place in Qatar, but about ensuring that Australia (and other Oceanian nations) make a stronger entry into the world stage, playing more games, having the opportunity to improve their capabilities, and achieve progress, so that when Australia or any other team from the region goes to the world championship, it will be “competitive” against the teams from other continents. Australia’s handballers have been training very hard and doing the best they can, but to be honest, their world championship record remains abysmal. For example, the men’s team has participated in all world championships since 1999 (with the exception of 2001), it has played a total of 42 games in seven events, and with the exception of a win against Greenland in 2003, they have lost all their games. The scores do not indicate any progress either. In 1999, the Australian team’s average goal difference was minus 18.2 per game; in 2013 it was minus 26.1. For the women’s team of Australia, the picture is similar. 43 games in six world championships since 1999, lost all games, the average goal difference was minus 18.2 in 1999, rising to 31.3 in 2011, with a relatively successful 2013 event at minus 14.0 per game. In general, the gap is not narrowing, it is widening.

Australians do not want to go to world championships just for the sake of playing there; they want to make progress. The author of this article knows this very well, as he himself played in Australia for two years, supported the women’s team during its preparation phase before the Sydney Olympics, and witnessed how determined and serious Australians are to improve their standing in the handball world. They are currently on unstable ground: they can easily get out of Oceania, but they find it very difficult to compete against other continents. They need a balanced platform, and, in this author’s opinion, it can be achieved by integrating Oceania into the Asian competition for world championship qualifications. Oceanian events can be maintained and improved as this is the venue where progress can be achieved for Pacific island nations, but instead of going directly to the world event, Oceanian winners can be admitted into the Asian qualification round. In this way, they can play more games, gain more experience, and then if they can make their way to the world championships they will be in a more competitive position. In the meantime, efforts to establish a fully fledged and fully recognized Oceanian handball confederation will be helpful for establishing the administrative framework of handball development in the continent.

The IHF’s decision was wrong. It is unacceptable to retroactively strip a team from a right it has legitimately earned. But it is also not sustainable from the perspective of world handball, to have an Oceanian team to make its way to the world championships after winning one or two easy games at a regional competition. The Australian Handball Federation has already made it clear that what they want is a “competitive team from Oceania” to take part at the world stage, and there is no doubt that other national federations agree. It is now the IHF’s turn, to correct its mistake by ensuring that Oceanians can play more matches, in a more adequate competitive environment, so that they can build and improve their own competitive capacity. If we want to turn handball into a world sport, Oceania has to return to the IHF’s world atlas.

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