The following is an English translation of an article that appears in the latest edition of the German magazine, HANDBALL Inside
The Los Angeles Project
By Erik Eggers
Because qualification was canceled due to the Coronavirus, the USA received a wildcard for the 2021 World Championships. This unexpected participation is only one step on the ambitious road to the Olympic Games in 2028.
Ian Hüter, 23, was sitting at his desk in Neuss and was completely immersed in his studies. He is working on his Bachelors Degree in International Business in Venlo. But then his WhatsApp almost knocked him off his chair: Robert Hedin, the USA head coach, in short, informed the team that they had received a wild card for the upcoming World Championships in Egypt from the IHF. “I got goose bumps when I read that,” says Hüter. “That’s really sheer madness”!
And so he will, Hueter realized, soon lead Team USA onto the court in Egypt against France, Norway and Austria. The center back for second division Bayer Dormagen has been the captain of the team for a while and his brother Patrick is also a member of the squad. “It will be fantastic, we are all just happy to be part of it “, he reports in an interview with HANDBALL inside. “We are all nuts for it, everyone can easily imagine that.”
This wildcard fuels the long-term project to bring handball in the USA up to world-class by the Olympic Games 2028 in Los Angeles and to popularize the sport on the most important market in the world (see “Utopia of handball”, Inside Handball Edition # 23) . The influx of potential candidates is increasing. “Since it has become clear that we will be at this World Championship already, a lot of players with an American passport have contacted us,” confirms national coach Hedin.
Among them were two professionals or semi-professionals from the Liga ASOBAL, the top Spanish league. “For one of the two players the World Championship won’t be happening this time, since his passport won’t be ready in time,” says Hedin. But he will invite the second player, Alexandré Chan Blanco (Dicsa Modular Cisne) to the preparatory training camp. Another will be a Hungarian pro who sent Hedin a video of himself playing against Veszprém in the Hungarian league. “I will also take a very close look at him during the camp,” says Hedin.
The criticism, especially in the Scandinavian media, that Greenland didn’t get the wild card award because the IHF has was only interested in economic goals, has little effect on the Swedish coach. “There will always be people who are dissatisfied with it,” says the European champion from 1994. The IHF simply had to make a decision after the qualifying tournaments in Mexico and Puerto Rico were cancelled.
From an athletic point of view, he cannot understand the allegations anyway. Says Hedin, “In comparison, we are no worse than Greenland.” With players like the Hüter brothers or circle runner, Domagoj Srsen, (Wilhelmshaven), we have already made progress. Circle runner, Drew Donlin, who also played in Dormagen, is meanwhile gaining valuable experience with Ademar Leon.
The national team is logistically controlled from Germany. The team manager is Andreas Hertelt, who won the European Cup in 1989 under Hotti Bredemeier with TuRu Düsseldorf (see also questions in Handball Inside Edition #29). Hertelt is looking for ways to organize the training camp originally planned in Norway. “It looks like we’ll all meet in Denmark at the beginning of January,” says Hedin, explaining the current state of affairs.
Hertelt, who lives in Krefeld, is also trying to acquire additional sponsors for the World Cup on short notice. A major sponsor has been emblazoned on the jersey since January: the American communications company Verizon. Its CEO, Hans Erik Vestberg, was once the president of the Swedish Handball Federation. In the long term, sponsor acquisition should also be easier, because the IHF Council has already decided to provide Team USA with a wildcard for the World Championships in 2025 (in Croatia, Denmark and Norway) and 2027 (in Germany) in order to help the team be more competitive at the 2028 Olympic tournament.
Also embedded in the US project is Stefan Bögel from Solingen, who used to work as a player’s agent in the Bundesliga, but now is primarily responsible for the female second division team HSV Solingen-Gräfrath. Bögl specifically coordinates the scouting of the younger age groups who are eligible for the 2028 Olympics, today’s A and B youth (ages 16-19) players. “The prospect of participating in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles is extremely tempting,” says Bögl.
When they showed up with a US team at the Sauerland Cup in January, many young people with a U.S. passport had already approached him. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic prevented further scouting. A training camp planned in Luxembourg was canceled. “A lot has been destroyed by Corona,” complains Bögl, who emphasizes that the US association does not find players with money. “We are not Qatar, which has naturalized ready-made professionals with a lot of money,” he says.
“For a long time many players even have had to pay for their own transatlantic flight tickets,” assures Bögl. Ian Hüter confirms that. Yes, that happened in his early days with the program, especially during the training camp in Alabama. “We paid for the flight to Atlanta ourselves,” he says. “But for the PANAM Games in Lima in 2019, the Federation paid all the costs.”
Even before the surprising wildcard at the beginning of November, the U.S. federation was testing some highly talented junior players. Hedin has high hopes for Luke Bolte from Tiffin, Ohio. The 20-year-old pivot, who is 1.95 meters tall, weighs over 100 kilograms and has a perfect physique for handball, made his debut during the Sauerland Cup. Bolte will also take part in the Pre-World Championships training camp, said Hedin.
Most of all, however, there is Tristan Morawski, 15, a very promising left-handed backcourt whose father played for the Polish national team and who is not shy about aiming for very big goals: “I want to become the Michael Jordan of handball,” the over two meter tall teenager announced in conversation with the Olympic Channel. Hedin says he thinks it’s good when kids set high goals for themselves. But for the World Championships in Egypt Morawski will not be able to participate. “The age limit is 16 years.” Morawski’s 13-year-old brother Kailan is also assessed as having excellent talent.
Tristan Morawski also made his debut at the Sauerland Cup in January playing for the U.S. U19 team as a 14-year-old and has been even more motivated ever since. “I want to be the best,” he says, emulating his role model, Mikkel Hansen. “I want to play in the Olympics, win gold and be an MVP.” He dreams that handball will be as popular as basketball in the US in the not too distant future. It is his goal to expose handball to a larger audience, said Morawski.
Initially, however, he will also benefit from the support program established by the Forum Club Handball (FCH) to provide handball training for talented prospects. The association of the leading European top clubs is spending a total of seven figures on this, announced its managing director, Gerd Butzeck, in this magazine two years ago. The German goalkeeper René Ingram is now with IFK Kristianstad, and the talented goalkeeper Nico Robinson moved from the upper division TuS Dotzheim to Elverum this past summer.
Circle runner, Bolte, and Morawski are to be trained at the SG Flensburg-Handewitt Academy. “I can’t even put into words how much I’m looking forward to it,” says the young left-hander. “I can hardly wait.” Exactly the same development is intended for the female talents, because the US women will also have a team at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The idea behind the training program is that sustainable development is only possible if the US prospects are fully immersed in the handball environment associated with a top club. It would be a mistake to rely solely on athletes like winger Gary Hines, who played for a long time in the 3rd division at HSC Bad Neustadt and now, as a 36-year-old, is finishing out his career with Bögel’s home club Solingen-Gräfrath while concentrating on his coaching education. “Gary is incredibly fit,” says Bögel about the man who has already proven his physique several times on the RTL show “Ninja Warrior Germany”. “But, of course, you can tell that he didn’t play handball in his youth.”
A strong US team for Los Angeles is one thing. “The other thing is that handball has to grow in the USA,” says Hedin. “At some point we need a league system in the United States that also generates presence in the U.S. media.” Jean Brihault, the former EHF president, who also sees opportunities in college sport, has been working towards this goal for more than two years (see Interview in Handball Inside Edition #23: Translation). Initiatives like this have, of course, taken place in the past: The successful participation of the U.S. team in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich fizzled out, as did as the international match between Germany and Poland, which the German Horst-Dieter Esch, who was in charge of USA Team Handball at the time, played and organized in Chicago in 2010. In any case, there is a lot of work ahead for the handball developers in the USA.
In Egypt, however, as everyone involved is well aware, they will have to set their sights quite a bit lower. “I’m afraid we will get kicked in the face really hard at the World Cup,” Bögel suspects. “It’s not going to be enough for France and Norway” Hedin says and laughs out loud on the phone. We will probably end up in the Presidents Cup, in which places 25 to 32 will be determined. “Our goal is to win USA’s first World Championships game,” says Hedin. “Every game at this level is important for our development.”
Captain Ian Hüter regrets he won’t encounter injured legend Nikola Karabatic on the Giza pitch. “But there are also a lot of other great players that we will be up against, like Sander Sagosen,” he said. Above all, he is looking forward to meeting the French double world champion Kentin Mahé, who was trained like Hüter in Dormagen. “Kenny even went to the same school as me then,” says Hüter, “and as a kid I stood in the stands when he played. Of course, I looked up to him.” Perhaps in Giza there will be an opportunity to chat with his former idol about Dormagen. Or even outplay him and score a goal.
Thanks to Erik Eggers for providing a copy of the article and to Christa Ingram who assisted with its translation.
A few notes:
- Luke Bolte will not be taking part in the Pre World Championship training camp mentioned in the article.
- Tristan Morawski is already training at the Flensburg Academy.
- Pal Merkovszki, a GK for Gyöngyösi KK is the unnamed Hungarian player.
- Analysis of the USA’s 20 man roster for the World Championships: Link
- For more on the Forum Club Handball’s support to USA athletes check out this podcast interview with Andreas Hertelt: Link