Faroe Islands Handball Success and What it Means for the U.S.: Paradoxically, the Right Conclusion isn’t so Obvious

Elias Ellefsen á Skipagøtu is a real life handball Jimmy Chitwood (From the Movie: Hoosiers)

As someone who has a keen interest in both geography and handball it should come as no surprise that I’m a bit fascinated with the Faroe Islands and their recent handball success. Geography wise it’s a country so far off the beaten track that most people don’t even know it exists. In between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands have 52,000 citizens and similar to Greenland they are an autonomous territory of Denmark.

Handball wise they won the first two IHF Emerging Nations Championships in 2015 and 2017 and more recently they played several competitive matches against much larger nations in 2022 European Championship qualification, including a 27-26 win over the Czech Republic. Their most impressive accomplishment?: winning the European U17 Championship in 2019. And, it was not a fluke, they clearly were the best team at this tournament, beating the likes of Norway, Spain, Hungary, Belarus and Sweden.

Further Proof that Small Nations can Compete Effectively in Handball

In the past I’ve highlighted how Iceland with a small population (368,000) has been a pretty successful handball nation. They’ve yet to win a major title, but they are often in the running and they won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. And, now the Faroes Islands (1/6th the size of Iceland) are taking this concept of small nation handball success to even further extremes.

But, what does this remarkable success mean for a much larger nation like the U.S.? There are a couple of conclusions one might come to. One wrong; one right.

The Wrong Conclusion: If the tiny Faroe Islands can win with modest raw talent… Then the U.S. can accomplish even more with top notch raw talent

If one watches a bit of the Faroe Islands matches from European Championship qualification vs Russia or the Czech Republic it is absolutely striking to see the size disparity of the teams playing. From wing to wing, the Faroe Islands are giving up several inches in height and overall size in general. If you’ve played handball even just a little bit, you know that size isn’t everything. Plenty of smaller, quicker and craftier players have put bigger players in their place.

Case in point, is 19 year old, Elias Ellefsen á Skipagøtu. Check out these plays from Euro Qualification: As Rasmus Boysen pointed out on Twitter: The hype is real part 1; The hype is real part 2 He sure doesn’t look like much, but he’s a big reason behind the Faroe Islands success.

That being said… while size may not be everything, it’s still something. And, not even considering size (which can be easily seen) I think the Czechs and Russians, with the exception of Skipagotu, are also better in terms of raw talent. I don’t think there are any Faroe Islands athletes that would get much playing time if they were playing for the Czech Republic or Russia. Actually, there are probably only 1 or 2 players who would even make the Czech or Russian roster. That’s not a knock on the Faroe Islands handball team. No, on the contrary, it’s the ultimate compliment of their spirit and team play. The old saying that sometimes a “team” is more than the sum of it’s parts really applies here. Big time.

And, here’s where an American watching the Faroes Island’s success might come to a bad conclusion as to what it means for American handball. That train of thought goes something like this:

“Why look at what the Faroe Islands have accomplished with the limited talent they have to work with. Oh my God!  We can easily find 16 better athletes in the vast U.S. and put together an even more competitive handball team.  Bigger, quicker and stronger athletes. They are all over the place in the U.S.  It doesn’t even matter if they’ve never played the game.  We’ll just take athletes that don’t turn professional from other sports and assemble a team.”

Coming to this very wrong conclusion is somewhat understandable. Seriously, more than once during the last two matches, I said to myself, how are the Faroes doing it? But, the more you know about handball… the more you know it’s a very naive and arrogant perspective. One that totally doesn’t understand how hard it is to learn how to play handball at the highest level against professional athletes that have been playing the sport all their lives.

The Right Conclusion: The Faroes Island’s success against more gifted athletes shows what would likely happen with a “quick fix’ American team composed of great raw talent athletes. Perhaps we should instead focus on long term grass roots development.

No, paradoxically we shouldn’t be zeroing in on the raw athletic talent shortcomings of the Faroe Islands as much as we should be looking at their strong technical handball skills and team play. That train of thought goes something like this:

“Look at what the Faroe Islands have accomplished with modestly gifted athletes that have played the sport for several years.  They even compete well against teams with significantly better athletes that have also been playing handball for several years.  I wonder how the Faroe Islands would fare against a bunch of great American athletes that haven’t played handball for very long?   Answer:  The Faroe Islands would beat such a team… relatively easily.

I know this logic runs counter to American exceptionalism. And, if one were to contemplate the juxtaposition of the Faroe Islands squad facing off against a bunch of former NCAA Division 1 athletes who weren’t quite good enough to go pro in basketball, football or some other sport in a game of handball it’s hard to imagine such athletes getting schooled. The size disparity would be dramatic. The quickness and athleticism would also be clear. During warmups one would look at the two teams and think the Faroe Islands has no chance… but dollars to donuts they would school such a team of raw talent transfers.

Why wouldn’t they? After all, they’ve shown they can compete just fine against the Czech Republic and Russia. Pretty good athletes that already know how to play handball. And look closely… the raw athletic talent level of those Czech and Russian national teams is very comparable to the type of raw athletic talent one might see at a number of NCAA Division 1 basketball programs. Guys not headed to the NBA, but maybe to European pro leagues if they want to. Exactly the type of athletes the U.S. has recruited to varying degrees of success for the last 50 years or so.

So when we see the inevitable string of articles, podcast commentary and tweets this summer during the Olympics about how Lebron, Mahomes and others would easily win handball Gold keep in mind the following:

  • We’re never getting that level of athlete… we would instead have to settle for good, but lower level talent probably similar to the Czech and Russian teams.
  • The Czechs and Russians didn’t even come close to qualifying for the Olympics and they had some real trouble with the Faroe Islands.
  • It would probably take a couple of years for such a team to be even capable of beating the Faroe Islands.

Turning Raw Athletic Talent into Handball Players

I’m not saying it’s impossible to take athletes with great raw talent and turn them into handball players. It’s been done many times before… But, always at a significant cost over a long period of time. We can debate as to how much it will cost and how long it will take in today’s current handball landscape. A handball landscape that is way more professionalized today than it was during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

We can and we should have that debate… Put some real dollar figures in terms of cost per athlete per year of specialized and focused training. And compare that cost to the costs to implement various grass roots programs. Maybe, after one runs the numbers it still makes sense to focus on a program similar to our residency programs of the past. Maybe it’s rebranded as more of a European style Academy effort. Maybe a very few, very high quality athletes are identified and sent quickly to Europe. Maybe, but let’s also consider the Faroe Islands and what they have accomplished with a radically different strategy.

Our Dual Citizen, Faroe Islands-like National Team

Also, needing to be factored in: A pretty decent talent pool of dual citizen American athletes which are sort of a Faroe Islands unto themselves. They’ve grown up playing the game, but they are dispersed all over Europe: USA 20 Man Roster for the 2021 WC

It would actually be pretty interesting to see this current U.S. team play the Faroe Islands. The U.S. would probably be around 5 goal underdogs, but we could beat them… probably not in Torshavn though.

  • Previous related commentaries
    • The “Iceland Strategy”: Focus a large percentage of USA Team Handball’s resources on one geographical location Part 1Part 2
    • Expatica Americana: In recent years, Americans that first learned to play handball in another country have played an ever increasing role with U.S. national teams.  This series takes a closer look at what can be expected from this key cohort. (Aug-Sep 2019)
      • Part 1:  What is a handball American Expat and Philosophically, What is an American?:  Link
      • Part 2:  Understanding this 51st state and its handball demographics: Link
      • Part 3: Can a small, but determined handball nation be competitive against larger nations? Can they win a title?: Link
  • For more insight on the Faroes Islands and Portugal (another smallish nation making noise) check out this session from the Scottish Handball Association Conference: Link