The IHF Council has awarded the Japanese Men’s team a wild card entry for the 2019 World Championships which will be cohosted by Germany and Denmark next January. This award is clearly to support Japanese development in the run up to the 2024 Olympics in Tokyo. For sure, Japan is not the next best available team. They placed 6th at the Asian Championship losing to Iran 33-28 in the 5th place game. Iran’s not going to the World Championships and neither will several European teams that surely would beat Japan in competition. It’s not certain which European teams won’t qualify, but it will be the 9 losers in these 2 match playoffs that will be held in June: Link
There’s certainly some logic to giving a helping hand to a future Olympic host. As noted, previously the IHF is under pressure from the IOC to show that handball is more than just a European game. Right now the level of play for the Japanese Men would suggest a winless last place finish with some bad score lines. Playing in a World Championship will provide some valuable experience that hopefully can narrow the gap some. Their athletes will also get a chance to shine on the world stage and perhaps use that opportunity to sign a professional club contract.
What’s interesting to note about this decision by the IHF Council is that it was made prior to the European qualification matches. Meaning, that if a “name” team slips up and doesn’t qualify the IHF won’t be able to award that team a wild card spot. That being said most of the key “name” teams have already qualified. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that if Germany’s qualification was still in doubt the IHF might well have held off on awarding the wild card slot to Japan
A Future Wild Card Deal for the U.S.?
Japan’s award raises the question as to whether the U.S. might be given a similar boost at some point. With the IHF looking to develop the U.S. market, one can certainly see the possibility of the men’s and women’s team getting wild cards in the future. Should it be necessary, one could certainly envision wild cards in 2027. But, I suspect the goal is for that not to be necessary nine years from now.
It’s hard to see that far in the future, though, and certainly qualification would be directly tied to whatever future qualification requirements are levied on the new North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation. Not to mention that Cuba with its inclusion of European pros is an emerging force to reckon with.
One could actually envision an earlier wild card award to the U.S. After all, participating in a World Championships just a year and a half before an Olympics is kind of a stop gap measure. It will help, but not set the stage for significant improvement in such a short period of time. Whereas 3 years or even 5 years ahead of an Olympics provides more time for growth. However, such an award would not be automatic. The U.S. would have to show some level of promise. That the team had real potential for improvement.
It remains to be seen just what is in store with the IHF’s plans for North America, but the helping hand to Japan can certainly be seen as a signal that help may be on the way.