Breakthrough World Championship for PATHF: Argentina and Brazil Prove they belong with European Sides

Brazil vs Qatar on the opening day.  Qatar may be in the finals, but the real revelation in my opinion is the progress of Brazil and Argentina.

Brazil vs Qatar on the opening day. Qatar may be in the finals, but the real revelation in my opinion is the continuing progress of Brazil and Argentina.

Eight years ago while living in France I saw Qatar play in a friendly tourney in Paris. I don’t think they won a game and as I recall their best player was a naturalized Bosnian playmaker. For sure, if someone had told me that Qatar would be playing in the World Championship Final in 2015 I wouldn’t have believed them.  So, on the surface such a development might be heralded as a major breakthrough for handball outside of Europe. But, with Qatar’s roster being largely an all-star team of European cast offs nothing has really changed. For all appearances, the World Championships are still largely a European party with a few annoying teams from other parts of the world to give the tourney a little color and to give European sides a breather game or two during group play.

But appearances can be deceiving and anyone who watched Brazil, Argentina, Tunisia and Egypt play surely knows what I’m talking about. Those 4 sides didn’t fully crash the European party, but they each showed that they belong making it to the round of 16 and making almost all of their group play games tight affairs. Probably, the most telling aspect of their performance was the banishment of a record 4 European sides to the President’s Cup. Once just the embarrassing end for one or two European sides, this year the battle for 17th was an all European affair contested by Russia, Belarus, Bosnia and the Czech Republic.

In the Round of 16, three of the four sides went quietly, but Brazil went toe to toe with Croatia for a full 60 minutes. A 2nd tier nation can occasionally keep pace for a half against a side like Croatia. And maybe sometimes it can be stretched for 45 minutes, particular if it’s part of Group Play. But, 60 minutes in the knockout stages? No, a side has arrived when it can do that.

How was this done and what does it mean? Here’s a closer look at Argentina and Brazil and what it means for the rest of PATHF.

The Argentine and Brazilian WC Resume

Both Argentina and Brazil have made it out of the Initial Group Phase before, but this is the first time both sides did so at the same time. And this time both sides were clearly in contention for every single match with the exception of Argentina’s loss to France in the Round of 16. Both sides also had signature matches against former World Champions. Argentina’s draw vs. Denmark and Brazil’s 1 goal loss to Croatia.

Argentina: 4th in Group Phase; Lost to France in Round of 16 (12th Overall)
Brazil: 4th In Group Phase; Lost to Croatia in Round of 16 (16th Overall)

Argentina: 5th In Group Phase (17th Overall)
Brazil- 3rd in Group Phase; Lost to Russia in the Round of 16 (13th Overall)

Argentina: 3rd in Initial Group Phase; 6th in Main Round Group (11th overall)
Brazil: 6th in Initial Group Phase (21st overall)

Argentina: 5th in Initial Group Phase (18th Overall)
Brazil: 5th in Initial Group Phase (21st Overall)

A Closer Look at the Roster Data

If one looks at Argentina’s and Brazil’s Official Rosters there are some key aspects worth highlighting

  • Several players are playing professionally in Europe. Argentina has 5 players playing in the French 1st Division (LNH), 3 in the French 2nd Division (D2) and 1 in the 3rd Division (N1). Brazil has 8 players in the Spanish 1st Division (Liga ASOBAL) and 1 player in the French 1st Division (LNH).

    It’s always a debate when it comes to the relative strength of the various professional leagues in Europe. The German Bundesliga is unquestionably the strongest, but I would argue that the French LNH is now the second strongest (top to bottom). The Spanish Liga ASOBAL has also slipped a bit with many of the top Spanish players playing abroad, but it may still be the 3rd strongest or slightly behind Denmark. Regardless, these players are getting paid to play and they are playing competitive matches on a regular basis.

  • Argentina’s roster is showing some age while Brazil’s is relatively a bit younger. Argentina’s average age is 28.6 and some of their key scoring punch is coming from some players on the north side of 30. Brazil’s average age is 26.1 and fewer of their key player are older. In fact, the core of this team could be solidly intact all the way through the 2020 Olympics.

The Visual Evidence

Data analysis is all well and good, but now having seen Argentina and Brazil play several times here’s a few observations I’ve made:

  • Neither Argentina nor Brazil is extraordinarily gifted with raw talent. Don’t get me wrong both sides have got some great athletes, but they are not so talented that they can overwhelm their opponents. Argentina’s Diego Simonet has great quickness and ball savvy. Brazil’s entire side can run and gun as well as any side.   Both sides, however, in my opinion are lacking a great leaper/scorer that can consistently score from 10 meters. Watching Argentina I couldn’t help but wonder what damage that side might have done with a young Eric Gull in the backcourt next to Simonet.
  • Both Argentina and Brazil are now very solid technically. How solid? As far as I’m concerned from a technical standpoint there’s virtually no difference between those two sides and the European sides. Wow! This is a hugely significant development and I can almost not believe that I wrote that last sentence. This has never happened before in Pan America. Sure, the U.S. and Cuba in the 1980s were competitive with European sides, but it was pretty much always due to great raw athletic talent overcoming technical shortcomings. More recently Argentina and Brazil have been pretty competitive, but one could sit back and wait for technical mistakes and turnovers that would be those sides undoing. Not any more.
  • Both Argentina and Brazil have big game composure. In addition to the technical skills, though, both sides now have the experience to win those big games in the critical last 5 minutes. Teams can only cross that bridge if they have the technical skills and the requisite experience. Brazil and Argentina have now played scores of meaningful game and at the same time many of their players are now getting week in, week out, professional experience. Argentina and Brazil didn’t win all their close games, but they played several that could have gone either way. And they won some for sure.

What it means for the rest of Pan America and the U.S.

What does it all mean? Well, in simple terms the rest of Pan America is going to be very hard pressed to beat either Argentina or Brazil anytime soon. Argentina’s roster is a little thin so some key injuries could provide an opening, but barring that they are virtually a lock to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.

Looking further out, both sides seem well poised to build upon their outstanding performance at the WC. Both will need to reload and integrate younger players, but it appears that they have the development programs in place to do so. Consistently Argentina and Brazil have continued to dominate PATHF youth and junior championships.

At one time qualifying for an Olympics from Pan America could be done with just a bit of short term planning. A team could be comprised of great athletes relatively new to the game with just a few years experience. Heck, the athletes didn’t even have to be professional, just a tight knit group of amateurs on a mission. Such a team could win a PANAM Games and then even play some European sides close at an Olympics before inevitably falling short.

Unfortunately, that now no longer is true. No, winning the PANAM Games and qualifying for the Olympics now means beating the equivalent of a “European side.”  And while a “European side” can be beaten by an American team, keep in mind that it hasn’t happened in a very long time and only in semi-meaningless friendly’s.  The U.S. in fact has only beaten one European side ever in a World Championship or Olympic match competition and that consolation round victory over Spain in 72 was in a different era altogether.

Something to contemplate as plans are developed to build a national team for a return to the Olympics….