Proposed new format for Champions League causes the expected uproar

Champions League becoming the playground reserved for the rich and powerful?

Champions League becoming the playground reserved for the rich and powerful?

For several years now, there has been a strong sense that the EHF Champions League for men has yet to find its ideal format. The approach used in recent years does allow for a fairly large number of countries to have a team involved, but the drawn-out group stage has tended to become a predictable and boring period with many meaningless games. So there has been a lot of pressure for changes.

And now there is a proposal which seems to be gaining momentum after a preliminary agreement between the EHF and the association of the European top clubs, the FCH. The proposal is to replace the current format, which has 24 teams in the group stage, with a top division with 16 teams and a lower division with 12 teams. The proposal has the support of the majority of the top clubs but far from everyone is happy with the idea. In fact, it is strongly resisted in many places.

The problem is that different countries have vastly different circumstances. Leaving out those countries which really do not have a champion who is competitive enough to participate, the other countries essentially fall into three categories: 1) those rather few countries who have a league with many evenly matched teams, with a different champion every year, and with a strong following among the fans; 2) several countries where one or possibly two teams dominate completely, perhaps by tradition but more likely because of vast differences in financial resources and access to top players; and 3) Germany.

The new format, which would have four more games than currently for the teams in the new top group, suits the teams from category 2 perfectly. This would be Barcelona, Veszprem, Croatia, Kielce and several others. They would love to have more games in Champions League, which matters much more to them than the national league. But the teams from category 1 are of course upset for two reasons. Several of them would be excluded from a top group with only 16 teams; and if they do qualify, then they have to play more such games at the expense of their national league which still matters to them.

But Germany is really the crux. Typically there would be four teams from Germany in Champions League who all have a good chance to qualify for the final four or at least to be in the quarter-finals. And by any measure, the German Bundesliga is by far the strongest national league. But it has one problem, which leads to stubbornness or selfishness in Germany and to resentment in the other countries. Bundesliga has 18 teams, but it is not the strongest because of that. Normally, there are 5-6 top teams, 5-6 other quite strong teams, and then 6-8 teams who are not of the same caliber. But all these teams, and other clubs who have a chance to qualify for Bundesliga, desperately want to keep the number at 18, so that they can have the chance to be in this top league.

Unfortunately, and for reasons that are not clear to me personally, the very top teams in Germany also resist a reduction from 18 to 16, perhaps out of some kind of national loyalty. It seems that the games that would disappear if the league was reduced would be offset by even more lucrative games in Champions League. And of course the many teams in other countries who like the proposed format think the Germans are selfish and resent the German attitude. I can fully appreciate that. But, while I see many advantages in a move towards a real ‘elite league’, I can also understand the attitude of those countries in category 1 who resist the whole idea.

In fact, they argue along the same lines as many currently do in the context of football. Recent voices have been heard with arguments that UEFA has really created a closed and unfair system, where year after year roughly the same teams from the same small number of countries monopolize the places in the group stage of the Champions League. By that time, most of the champions of the about 50 countries in Europe have long since been eliminated from the competition. Their chances are only theoretical. It seems that at the same time, football and handball have come up against this issue of basic principle: should there be a true ‘champions’ league’ or should we be moving towards some kind of ‘closed shop’ Euroleague for the rich and powerful elite. This is an important debate and a critical decision!


Qatar defeats Bahrain in a dramatic final

Rivals Qatar and Bahrain in a tough battle

Rivals Qatar and Bahrain in a tough battle

Qatar were clearly the favorites in the Asian Championship, considering their recent progress and the special efforts they are making to have a strong team when they host the World Championship one year from now. And they lived up to expectations throughout the event, winning all their group matches with large margins and then defeating Iran in the semifinal.

But in the final they had to take on the home team, Bahrain, who probably had been the main surprise of this championship, for instance by winning their group ahead of Iran, Korea and Saudi Arabia. In the semifinal, the Bahraini had easily defeated the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain’s success has been made possible by strong efforts especially by the brothers Jaffar and Mahmood Abdul Qader. The final, where of course the Bahraini had strong crowd support in the fight against their rivals from Qatar, it was a very close encounter up to the very end. But to the frustration of their supporters, the Bahraini fell by a one-goal margin, 26-27, after 14-14 at half-time. It was a real battle, with tough methods and lots of provocations from both sides. A difficult job for the referees, but apparently a solid performance by Johansson/Kliko from Sweden.

As I reported earlier, the semi-finalists were already gaining spots in next year’s World Championship, regardless of the final ranking, where Iran today secured the bronze medals by winning against the U.A.E. The perennial top teams in the Asian continent, from Korea and Kuwait were a disappointment. As I have indicated, Korea failed to reach the semi-finals by the smallest of margins and got the fifth place by defeating Saudi Arabia in their final match. Kuwait placed seventh by beating Oman. But the real fiasco concerns the ranking of Japan in ninth and China in eleventh place, Japan has probably never before had such a weak showing, and China clearly has not made any progress following the Olympic Games. Should one draw the conclusion that the hegemony of the East Asians is now over, and that the Gulf States has once and for all by-passed them.

Looking ahead to the 2015 World Championship, almost half the field is now determined: Qatar; Spain (as defending champions); France, Denmark and Croatia from Europe; Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt from Africa; and now Bahrain, Iran and the United Arab Emirates from Asia. Nine of the remaining thirteen slots will go to the winner of the European play-off pairings in June, three will be determined in the PanAmerican Championship in Uruguay in June, and one place is for the winner in Oceania.


Bahrain determining the fate of Iran and Korea

Bahrain's failure to win the game gets Iran a place in the World Championship

Bahrain’s failure to win the game gets Iran a place in the World Championship

When I have followed the Asian Men’s Championship closely in recent days, I have seen it coming: the opportunity for suspicions of ‘orchestration’ on the final day of the preliminary groups. And today the scenario was as intriguing as it possibly could be. In the final game in its group, the Bahraini had it in their hands to ‘decide’ whether Iran or Korea would join them in next year’s World Championship.

The background is that three teams qualify, in addition to Qatar, who are the hosts for the 2015 World Championships. With the format now being used in the Asian Championship, this means that the top two teams in each preliminary group qualify not just for the semifinals but also for the World Championship. This is because Qatar is the superior team and is already through to the semifinal from their group prior to the final game tomorrow.

In the other group, the top teams appeared to be Bahrain, Iran and Korea. Iran and Korea tied, 24-24, on the first day. Then Bahrain beat Korea 26-25 two days ago. So from a Korean perspective, today they first needed to win against Saudi Arabia, which they did (28-24), and then they were in the very awkward position of needing to trust Bahrain to defeat Iran. A tie would mean that Bahrain would still win the group and avoid Qatar in the semi-finals, but above all it would mean that Iran would get the second place in the group on better goal difference than Korea.

One can imagine the frustration felt by the Koreans. On several occasions in the past, they have suffered the consequences when some of the West Asians have ‘ganged up’ on them. One just needs to remember the fraud that was perpetrated against the Koreans in the qualifying event for the 2008 Olympic Games. So surely Korea would have reasons to be suspicious. On the other hand, given that Iran is seen by the Bahrain government as the culprit, when the Shiite population in Bahrain is revolting against repression from the Sunni minority regime, one would wonder why a Bahraini team would feel encouraged to give a helping hand to precisely Iran.

But the final result of the Bahrain-Iran game will clearly raise some eye-brows, because the outcome was 30-30, after a 17-14 half-time lead for Bahrain. Of course, the two teams seem relatively evenly matched, so such an outcome could be just a fluke. And judging from reliable reports, there are no indications of manipulation. The Bahraini really seemed to be determined to win the game until the very end. One must hope that this is also the way it was viewed by the Koreans, and that they instead blame their own inability to defeat Iran in the opening game. A flare-up of overt geopolitical fights and accusations is not what the handball world needs.


Championships in Africa and Europe: ‘Déjà vu’ all over again…

The Algerians celebrate the victory of their men's team

The Algerians celebrate the victory of their men’s team


When a few days ago I predicted that Croatia, Denmark, France and Spain would move through to the semifinals, I was almost hoping that I would be wrong. An event needs some surprises to have real spark, but no other team was capable of causing any upsets towards the end. Poland came back from a weak start in the tournament, but it was not enough. In the fifth place game they lost against Iceland, who confirmed their remarkable ability to stay in the top group year after year. Sweden collapsed in the key games, and the young Russian team did not have the power and experience to make it all the way.

So in the semifinals, we had some rather thrilling match-ups, with Denmark being pressed by Croatia but holding on for a 29-27 win. The Croatians complained about everything being orchestrated to ensure a Danish win. Perhaps the Croatians have forgotten about the World Championship 2009 when they were the hosts and everyone else complained in the same way; not to mention 2007 in Germany which was even more flagrant. That is, whether we like it or not, part of the home court advantage. In the other semi-final we saw a real ‘roller coaster’, with France prevailing 30-27 against Spain. The bronze medal game was the usual kind of anticlimactic affair, with Spain finding slightly more inspiration and winning 29-28.

But who had expected that the final, in front of a fanatic Danish crowd, would become even more anticlimactic? And that we would have ‘déjà vu’ not just in the sense that the French would win their third European title, but that the Danes would collapse in much the same way they did in the World Championship final in Spain last year!? France pulled away with a 13-4 lead en route to a 23-16 half-time result. At that point, they had scored 23 goals on 26 shots, whereas the Danish attack looked desperate and unimaginative. The second half saw France play tactically smart, keeping the lead to between six and ten goals. In the end, all the back-up players got their chance to be on the court, and the result was 41-32 at the final whistle.

Referees in the final were Raluy/Sabroso from Spain, who had their international break-through three years ago when handling the World Championship final in Sweden. As I saw a former colleague put it in an interview: “they may not make fewer mistakes than other couples, but their style and personality make them more convincing”. Yes, a big part of the referee job is indeed to ‘sell’ your ability and your decisions!

In terms of qualifying for the World Championship in Qatar 2015, all the four teams in the medal games are now qualified. Nine slots remain for Europe, and in the draw for the ‘one-on-one’ qualification battles we got some really intriguing match-ups! The referees will really come under pressure in many cases. What do you think about Poland vs. Germany, or Greece vs. FYR Macedonia, or Hungary vs. Slovenia, and even Russia vs. Lithuania!? The other games may not be such ‘hot potatoes’ from a geopolitical standpoint, but there are no really easy ones among Austria-Norway, Romania-Sweden, Serbia-Czech Rep., Montenegro-Belarus, and Bosnia/Herzegovina-Iceland.


In Africa, the outcome was, if anything, even more predictable in terms of qualifying for the 2015 World Championships. Perhaps it was not so obvious that Algeria’s men would come out of top, ahead of Tunisia and Egypt, but surely these were the three favorites. Angola was the remaining semi-finalist. Among the women, we will see exactly the same three representatives from Africa in the 2015 World Championship as in 2013. But it may have been a bit of a surprise that Tunisia would be the winner, ahead of Dem. Rep. of Congo and Angola. The key here was a dramatic overtime win in the semifinal for Tunisia over Angola. The home team Algeria was the remaining semi-finalist.


Championships all over the world

Qatar 2015 is the goal for the top men's teams in all the continents

Qatar 2015 is the goal for the top men’s teams in all the continents

The preliminary round of the African Championships for men and women finished today, even if almost all of the teams advancing to the semifinals were known already yesterday. On the women’s side, I had suggested that the main question was which other team would join the three recent World Championship participants in the semifinals. Not surprisingly the answer is Algeria, who were able to use the home court advantage. They won their group ahead of the team from Dem. Rep. of Congo. In the other group, Angola and Tunisia dominated, with Angola coming out as the winner (25 -19) in today’s encounter between the two. This makes for an intriguing semifinal between Algeria and Tunisia, and the other semifinal is then Dem. Rep. of Congo against Angola. The fourth-placed team will not qualify for the World Championship.

On the men’s side, Egypt and Tunisia were through to the semifinals prior to today’s game between the two, which Tunisia won by 26-20 after a commanding 15-7 lead at half-time. These teams had easily won against all their four group opponents. Third place in the group went to Cameroon. In the other group, Angola had defeated Morocco in the very first game, but then they surprisingly lost against Dem. Rep. of Congo. So today Angola first needed to beat the ‘other’ Congo, which they did convincingly (38-29), and then they needed to hope that Algeria would defeat Morocco. This also happened, as Algeria pulled away to 26-19, after 11-11 at half-time. Judging from the group results, Morocco was never really convincing; and as I wrote a few days ago, it may be good for African handball to have a Sub-Saharan team come through on the men’s side. The semi-finals will now be: Algeria-Egypt and Angola-Tunisia. The top three will go through to Qatar 2015. Algeria-Egypt promises to be a hard-fought battle.

In the European Championship, the teams in the Main Round groups now have one game left on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. Denmark is already through as a group winner to the semifinals from Group A, while Iceland still has a chance to knock Spain out of the other semifinal spot. But this would require both a win for Iceland against Denmark and a loss for Spain against FYR Macedonia. It seems to me that Spain is too strong to allow that to happen. In the other group, the results today meant that France is already the group winner and that, on Thursday, we will have a Croatia-Poland game which directly decides who will be second and third in the group. Sweden had seemed to have a chance, but today they had a complete mental breakdown against Poland, following the near collapse against Russia two days ago.

And before competitions come to an end in Algeria and Denmark, the 16th Asian Men’s Championship will get started on Saturday in Bahrain. Twelve teams will be competing, initially in two groups of six. Three teams will qualify for the next World Championships in January 2015, but as this event will take place in Qatar, it means that the hosts have a spot guaranteed. Undoubtedly, the Qatari will still see it as a matter of prestige to do well now in Bahrain, and they are probably the favorites. But it takes a little bit of pressure off for all the other teams who could qualify even if they come in fourth. The format of the event means that the key is to come in first or second in the group and qualify for the semifinals.

Group A: Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Bahrain. Group B: Qatar, Japan, U.A.E., Kuwait, Iraq and Oman. Group A has the three top seeds as the main contenders, as China does not seem to have progressed since the 2012 Olympics. The host team from Bahrain will have a tough time. Group B might look just slightly easier, but a tough fight seems to be looming between Japan and Kuwait. On the basis of recent results, U.A. E. may also be capable of a surprise.

The IHF is providing support for both the African and the Asian events. In Bahrain, there are two referee couples assigned, Johansson/Kliko from Sweden and Pichon/Reveret from France, under the supervision of the Referee Committee member Ramon Gallego. In Algeria, ten African referee couples are reinforced by Cacador/Nicloau from Portugal, under the leadership of Manfred Prause, IHF/PRC President and PRC member Roland Buergi.


EURO 2014: All set for the main round without major surprises

The Serbs can only watch when the French knock them out of the event

The Serbs can only watch when the French knock them out of the event

The preliminary group matches have now been completed and we can look ahead to the more interesting part of the event. Yes, there were some last-minute fights to avoid the fourth place in the groups and an early departure for home. But at the top of each group, with maximum points brought forward to the main round, we find the four favorites Denmark, Spain, France and Croatia.

Denmark had a relatively easy time, while it was a more close call among the other three teams in the group. However, from the outset it became clear that the Czech team really was not up to the level of its golden days some decades ago. By contrast, the Austrians confirmed the observations from recent months that the have made good progress. In the neighboring group, the reigning world champions from Spain were dominant. Iceland show the effect of missing some key players, and Hungary also failed to impress, but on balance both these teams were strong enough to hold off a very young Norwegian team.

Group C had France as the favorites, but the many injuries and new players on the team had made some observers speculate about a possible surprise. But the French seemed solid (and even had nicer uniforms than the traditional ones…) and won all their games. In my preview I described Russia as the team to watch out for, and their new generation of players with a modern style coach came through, at the expense of the Serbs who were very pale compared with when the played for the home crowd. To nobody’s surprise, Croatia and Sweden were the top teams in group D, with the Croats coming out on top. Belarus managed to beat Montenegro in the game for the final place in the main round.

It is now easy to believe that the four group winners, starting out with four points each, will also be the favorites for the places in the semi-finals. The key games Denmark-Spain and France-Croatia come right at the beginning of the main round. But even the loser in the Denmark-Spain game should be able to hold off the other teams in the group. And it is difficult to imagine that Sweden or Poland should be able to displace the loser from the France-Croatia game. So while the games may be more even and interesting in the main round, chances are that the fight for the semi-final spots will not be so exciting.

The referee performances have been a bit uneven so far. Some of the veteran couples have been unconvincing and some of the couples whose nominations seemed marginal have not been able to justify their nomination. It has been a bit frustrating to see that some decisions seem to come in ‘autopilot’ fashion, without the necessary ability to distinguish between serious fouls and smaller infractions which are exaggerated through ‘theater’ by the ‘victim’.


African Championships – Men and Women

The competition in Algeria is about to start

The competition in Algeria is about to start

While handball Europe is focused on EURO 2014 which just got underway, the African continent will start its championship tournaments in Algeria on January 16. This event, which is the 21st of its kind, combines the men’s and women’s competition and serves as Africa’s qualifying event for the World Championships in 2015 (hosted by Qatar for men and Denmark for women).

The African continental handball federation (CAHB) has 50 members, but only about a dozen of these countries tend to take part in the continental championships; the remaining ones participate in regional African competitions and in the African component of the IHF Challenge Trophy. This time there are 12 participants on the men’s side and eight among the women. The groups in the preliminary round are:

Men A: Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon and Libya
Men B: Algeria, Morocco, Angola, Congo, Dem. Rep. of Congo and Nigeria
Women A: Algeria, Dem. Rep. of Congo, Cameroon and Senegal
Women B: Angola, Tunisia, Congo and Guinea

Among the women, we have the recent participants in the World Championships in the form of Angola (16th place), Tunisia (17th), and Dem .Rep of Congo (20th). It seems that the only teams which could prevent those three from qualifying yet again in 2015 are the host country Algeria and Cameroon.

On the men’s side, the question is likely to be the perennial one: can anyone else prevent the medal round from turning into a ‘North African Championship’. For the continent’s sake, it would probably be a good thing if this trend could be broken. The best chances for that would seem to rest with Angola and Congo, who might have the strength to knock off Morocco in group B.


EURO 2014: What are YOUR predictions?

Yes, Denmark is the right place for this kind of event!

Yes, Denmark is the right place for this kind of event!

On many earlier occasions, John Ryan and I have taken turns ‘sticking our necks out’ and offering predictions for the outcome of major events. This time we want to give YOU the chance to demonstrate your expertise and ability to predict what will happen!

EURO 2014 for men starts in Denmark on Sunday. The format is the now traditional one with four groups of four teams each. Two groups (in Herning and Aalborg) will play Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday, and two groups (in Aarhus and Copenhagen) will play Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Then in the main round, the top three from the Herning group will play the top three from the Aalborg group, with the same system for the top three from the Aarhus and Copenhagen groups.

The composition of the groups is: A/Herning: Denmark, Czech Republic, FYR Macedonia and Austria; B/Aalborg: Spain, Iceland, Hungary and Norway; C/Aarhus: Serbia, France, Poland and Russia; D/Copenhagen: Croatia, Sweden, Belarus and Montenegro. Yes, you have spotted it: Germany did not qualify for this event, and Slovenia is another prominent absentee.

One factor that could be important for the predictions is the unusual number of injuries and last-minute adjustments to the teams. Some other players who used to be key members of their teams have retired since last time. For instance, the French team may be particularly vulnerable for this reason. But it also means that we have the hope of seeing some emerging stars coming to the forefront. And which countries have the deepest talent pools?

It is difficult to imagine that Denmark is not in a good position to compete for the medals. They will have an enormous support of the spectators and the entire country. Moreover, they start out in what may seem to be the weakest group. Iceland is a team with many question marks, and it is tough to anticipate which team will fail to advance from group B. Group C may be the most difficult one to predict. Russia may be the ‘dark horse’ here. Croatia is probably seen by many as the favorite in group D, and here the team that seems to give the ‘experts’ the headaches in Sweden. Will the Swedes be a serious contender or are they destined for a let-down?

Well, I will stop there and ask YOU: who will be number 1, 2, 3 and 4 in this event? Who will be offer the biggest positive surprise, and who will be the negative surprise? Who will win be the Most Valuable Player, and who will win the scoring title? I cannot offer any fancy prices: the competition is just for the honor…


Sochi – ten awkward questions

Is this the right environment for the Olympic Games?

Is this the right environment for the Olympic Games?

No, do not worry; you have not missed out on any late-breaking news. Handball is not being moved to the Winter Olympics. But I figured that, as sports fans, you are still taking some interest in what will happen in Sochi, where events will get underway a month from now. Perhaps you will follow the overall medal count, or you may wonder if USA or Canada will have a chance to take the icehockey gold medals away from Russia? (The right answer is of course that Sweden will beat them all in icehockey…!)

Personally I had to get up to speed quickly on issues related to Sochi a couple of months ago, when I was suddenly ‘asked’ to take on the task of introducing the topic of Sochi and chairing a panel debate, during the Play the Game conference in Denmark. This meant getting ready to manage a dialog on topics such as the following. Please be forewarned, I will basically leave it up to you to answer the questions!

Was it right that Russia got the Winter Olympics? Most people recognize that Russia has the capacity and is a country with great traditions in winter sports. But we know that the host country gets a great chance to ‘make propaganda’. And it does seem a bit awkward that these days we see mostly countries run by dictators, oligarchs and oil sheikhs in contentions as hosts. On the other hand, who is really in a position to disqualify others, and what potential hosts would be left if we applied very tough criteria?

But why did they choose Sochi as the site? Unless you can read the mind of President Putin, you may not find a clear answer. The fact that Stalin once had a ‘dacha’ here cannot be the only reason. Sochi is one of the least winter-like sites in the entire country, and it seems that better alternatives would exist. But if propaganda is a factor, then one can see why Putin would feel that Sochi offers a comfortable and attractive setting that should impress the visitors and the TV viewers. And there is no risk for frost-bite!

Can we expect that the venues for the competitions will be first-rate? This is probably one of the most positive aspects. Assuming that buildings do not collapse due to shoddy construction, everything will be brand new and intended to meet the highest standards. The competition sites are split into two clusters, not far from each other, so transportation should not be a problem either. The Athletes Village seems to have passed inspection with flying colors.

Did Sochi really have the infrastructure to make it an easy site? Here the answer is clear. Essentially everything has had to be built and provided from scratch, such as roads, railways, airports, power supply, technological capacity, hotels and other facilities for the tourists. Normally, this would be a big negative for a candidate, as the IOC is generally quite concerned about such huge expenditure and the risk that things will not be finished on time.

Does this not set the stage for major cost over-runs and corruption? These tend to be problem areas for most Olympic hosts, but in Russia it has been much worse than ever. Part of it is the normal level of corruption in the country. But we have the added issue that it is a huge matter of prestige for Putin to finish all projects on time, when everything had to be built. He will not care that the cost overrun is 500% and that half of the money goes into the pockets of people, as long as it is ready by February 6.

What about reports of mistreatment of the workers? It is hard to know if things are worse than elsewhere in Russia, or in Qatar for the World Cup, as human rights observers have not had much access. The conditions look fine on paper, but if wages are not paid, if the hours are doubled to meet deadlines, if safety measures are non-existent, and proper health care and insurances are lacking, then reports of ‘slave labor’ may not be exaggerated. It is the principle that ‘the end justifies the means’.

What about security concerns? The good news is that Russia has vast expertise and resources for both heavy-handed and sophisticated efforts. But the bad news is that different ethnic groups and terrorist outfits are beginning to show their intentions to use the Olympics as a target or at least an occasion. It is awkward to know that Sochi is situated not far from known danger zones in the North Caucasus, but it may be of some consolation that the Sochi area might be relatively easy to isolate and protect. There is security zone of 1500 square miles, where nobody without credentials gets in.

Can one believe that freedom of the press will exist? This is of course in issue in Russia also in normal circumstances, both for Russian media and for foreigners. At my conference, a key Russian participant was from RIA Novosti, the main Russian news agency. But this agency no longer exists. It has been replaced by what looks like a propaganda machine. And it is feared that foreign media will be carefully monitored and restricted beyond a very narrow reporting from the sports events.

—So what about the atmosphere for the athletes and the spectators? It is likely that the legitimate security concerns will become an excuse for managing both athletes and spectators very carefully. The Russians will try to make the security presence less obvious, but monitoring of communications and movements is expected to be part of the picture. I have experienced tough security measures at several Olympic Games, but not to the extent that it has had a negative effect on the atmosphere and the Olympic camaraderie. Here one can have serious doubts, but we will just have to wait and see.

Will the issue of the new, strict anti-gay laws in Russia have a major impact? Clearly, the IOC has handled this issue very poorly. Russian reassurances have just been taken at face value, and the IOC had claimed that there is no breach of the Olympic Charter. Much will depend on whether any groups or individuals will endeavor to use the event for explicit demonstrations in one direction or the other, well beyond the U.S. gesture of including prominent gay and lesbian ex-athletes in the official delegation. One would think that, after all the attention the issue has had, the Russian authorities will go out of their way to avoid provocations, but the issue has become so full of prestige that it is hard to know.


IHF’s new TV rights contract and the critical question: how will the money be used?

What the IHF needs are goals, strategies, plans and transparency, NOT a 'Santa Claus approach'

What the IHF needs are goals, strategies, plans and transparency, NOT a ‘Santa Claus approach’

First there were rumors, and as John Ryan recently indicated, now there is confirmation: the IHF has managed to sell the TV rights for 2014-17 to a friendly business partner, Qatar’s Al Jazeera. The exact amount has not been officially confirmed, but there are indications of a record amount (about 100 million Swiss Francs, roughly equaling US$ 110 million), which would exceed the previous contract by more than 60 percent. This should be good news for the IHF, and it should be good news for the IHF president, as it might deflect attention away from the suspicions and police investigations related to his handling of the contract with UFA Sports for 2010-13.

When I say that it ‘should’ mean good news for the IHF, I deliberately use this cautious expression, because it creates a huge issue regarding how this money should and will be spent. If the IHF were being run properly, this would be a relatively easy task, because such decisions would be taken in a democratic and transparent manner, in accordance with well-established goals, strategies and plans. But sadly this is not the reality of today’s IHF, which is being run in a very different manner. There are essentially no agreed goals, strategies and plans. Moreover, while there is an IHF Council and an IHF Executive Committee, virtually all members of those bodies simply allow the autocratic president to make all the major decisions regarding financial matters. Therefore, we have absolutely no reassurance that the new resources, which are huge by IHF standards, will be used in a systematic, sensible and fair manner. Instead we have reason to worry that, as tends to happen when there is an absence of insight and control, an increase in resources may lead to an increase in waste and corruption.

As I noted when I recently commented on the proposed budget at the IHF Congress, the proportion of the money available that is being used for development efforts around the world is embarrassingly small. Despite the introduction of the IHF Challenge Trophy, and despite recent efforts to by somewhat more systematic and listen to the need of the national federations and the continental confederations, the overwhelming proportion of the IHF resources go towards expenses related to the World Championships, the IHF administration and the remuneration and activities of the IHF top officials. The main reason for the IHF to exist should be the support and development of handball at the grassroots level, especially in the many small and new member countries. Handball now has about 199 member federations, although actual handball activities may be hard to find in many of those countries. So the need for support and resources is enormous, but that is certainly not reflected in the current IHF budget.

Theoretically, therefore it should be easy to find appropriate ways of putting the new resources to good use. I already mentioned the needs of the new and small member federations. But in the context of my comments on recent World Championships, I have also pointed out that we cannot see any trend for the relatively more advanced member federations in Africa, America and Asia to catch up with their European rivals. We must not let the impressive and welcome success of Brazil overshadow the reality that, among the women, the perennial Asian and African powers from Korea and Angola had sunk to 12th and 14th place respectively, with Japan, Tunisia, China and Argentina showing only modest signs of future competitiveness. Apart from Brazil’s many victories, Koreas win against Netherlands in the preliminary round was the only time that a non-European team was able to win against a European opponent. So this group of 10-20 nations, which hypothetically could close the gap with the Europeans in the next 10-20 years, desperately need help in order to have a chance. Another point of focus, as it has recently been suggested by the IHF president, should be the importance of rapid improvement in some of the largest countries such as China, India and the United States. But I very much doubt that the IHF even appreciates the magnitude of the support that would be needed for such an effort to succeed.

Clearly, the IHF would never be able to build up its own personnel resources to such a level that the IHF could directly implement all the global development efforts that the new resources would permit. It would continue to be necessary to draw on experienced and interested technical experts from the advanced handball countries. But the planning and coordination efforts will need to be expanded, and the dialog with the recipients of the support will also require an improved structure and added resources. The member federations, directly and through its representatives within the IHF, simply must step forward now and help ensure that the new resources are put to the best possible use. This is a critical moment and handball cannot afford to miss this opportunity, so the IHF president must be given help in reaching the best decisions and ensuring an efficient implementation.


Women’s World Championship: some reflections

The Brazilian women at the top of the podium

The Brazilian women at the top of the podium

After we have now had time to celebrate the Brazilian triumph, there may still be some additional observations to make. First of all, I was delighted to the see the highly unusual amount of coverage in Brazilian media, perhaps in part because the event coincided with the vacation period in football… There were proud comments along the lines: “The girls are as good with their hands as the boys with their feet!” And it has also been interesting to review the comments in European media. One can find a mixture of reactions: selfish worries that the World Championship is no longer an internal European affair, delight that we now have an indication that handball is really a global sport, and above all attempts to explain why the Brazilians came out on top.

On that last point, I think there is general recognition that this should not really have been such a surprise, because Brazil has shown consistent strength for a while now. But many point to the experience gained by most of the players in European top club competition, and the fact that as many as six of the best players are now playing and training together under coach Soubak at Hypo. There is also a recognition that the Brazilians have been able to develop a style that is modern and dynamic, with players who do not look so big and intimidating but nevertheless are athletic, quick and tough. Many also commented on their ability to handle the pressure of some 20,000 spectators mostly supporting their opponents.

There has also been some speculation that it is not a coincidence that some of the perennial top teams from Europe seemed to struggle a bit. So some commentators suggest that it is the unrealistic pressure of having five top events in four years that is having its effect. In every four-year period, the Europeans have to deal with a continental championship that in terms of quality and demands does not have its equivalent in the other continents. And it is tough to put together a team in top form so frequently, as there is no time to integrate new players and to cope with injuries or other reasons for some ‘ups and downs’. But on the other hand, the European teams generally have a much larger pool of top players than their non-European rivals, so that should make for more flexibility and resilience.

Many have noted that the Brazilian victory will enable PanAmerica to field five teams, including Brazil, in 2015. There are two ways of looking at this. One, is the excitement of being able to have additional teams get the opportunity to face the highest level of competition and that this will encourage efforts and improvement in several federations around the continent. But, if one looks at the very feeble performance of the weaker Panamerican representatives this year, it seems that it could turn out to be bad for both the event and for the Panamerican image in 2015, unless several teams really make major strides in their development of more competitive teams. And, that is not going to be easy so soon!

Of course, I cannot avoid commenting also on the refereeing. Personally, I was pleased to see the progress of some younger couples. But, many media reports and comments from participating teams suggest that they were not so impressed by the overall standard in Serbia. It was noted that, if one removes the couples which will soon be in Denmark for the Men’s EURO 2014 and who could not realistically be in both events, it seemed that it could have been possible to insert some other experienced couples instead of some of those who were not seen as having reached a high level. Especially, I noticed the usual remarks that the IHF (and the EHF) seem to discriminate against the women’s championships. One important aspect is then the endeavor to use some couples with female referees. Regrettably, my own observations suggest that there has not been much progress in the last 5-10 years in terms of quality and stability on the part of the better female couples. Perhaps we see more female couples in EHF competition, but do they get the necessary support (including in their home countries) to reach the level required in a World Championship?

Finally, the despotic IHF president again decided to ignore common sense and the advice from the real experts around him. In the ‘consolation round’ for positions 17-24 he suddenly and capriciously ordered the Referee Committee to split up the established couples and experiment with combinations of referees who have never been on the court together before. Perhaps he felt he could get away with this nonsense because all the teams involved were from outside Europe, and all the referees involved were either women or from other continents. As I have written extensively before, and as I argued with the IHF president during my own years in the IHF, the concept of ‘mixed couples’ (as opposed to ‘fixed couples’) should never be considered for the international events, until and unless all the top handball countries were to decide that this is generally the best approach and therefore introduce it for their national leagues, such as Bundesliga, ASOBAL, Haandbold Ligaen, Ligue Nationale de Handball etc.


BRASIL!!! Panamerican World Championship Gold for the first time ever!

the new World Champions

the new World Champions

So the many years of efforts finally paid off! Brazil’s women have been close to the very top for a long while now, but always there was that one match that derailed the move towards the medal podium. In the 2012 Olympics, Brazil surprisingly won one of the two groups, but instead of getting a relatively easier path in the quarter-finals, they encountered Norway who had stumbled a bit in their group. So that led to a premature exit.

Now in the World Championship, the Brazilians had what already from the beginning looked like a tough preliminary group, with hosts Serbia and perennial medal favorites Denmark. But they managed to defeat both these opponents and win the group. And at that point we did not yet know that this group in fact had all the three eventual medal winners. But after four more wins, against Netherlands, Hungary and again Denmark and Serbia, Brazil are now at the top of the rankings! Nine straight wins, so nobody could argue that Brazil are not worthy winners! Defeating Denmark in the semi-finals by 27-21 and then coping with the enormous crowd support in favor of their Serbian opponents, and their own nerves, in their first ever final, holding on for a 22-20 win is really impressive!

The talent and spirit of the players has always been there. They have gained lots of international experience by playing for clubs in Europe, mostly Austrian Hypo. And they now have shrewd ant tactically strong support by their Portuguese-speaking Danish coach Morten Soubak. They have great goalkeeping, a spectrum of offensive weapons and, in my opinion, an enormously dynamic and alert defense. Their impressive footwork and reactions always seem to put them in the right place at the right moment. All in all, they play a positive and attractive handball!

While the Brazilians should now enjoy this special moment, I am sure that both they and everyone else can see the special significance of these gold medals, when one keeps in mind that the next Olympic Games will be held precisely in Brazil. So this victory should mean a lot for the interest in handball in Brazil, and for the determination of these players to hang in there and come even more prepared in 2016.

The Brazilian victory will also have implications for other PanAmerican handball countries in the sense that, unless IHF competition regulations change again, no less than four other teams from PanAmerica, plus of course Brazil, will be able to participate in the 2015 World Championships. This should give a boost in a number of countries who will now find it realistic to get onto the world scene. Finally, as someone who for over 30 years has been active in the PanAmerican Handball Federation, I must say that I feel really happy or even proud, because I know what it means and I know what it takes for a country in our continent to get to the number one position. From all of us in Panamerica: well done, and well deserved, Brazil!


Yes, Brazil vs. Denmark again, but Poland is the big surprise!

Happy Polish players celebrate their place in the semifinals against Serbia

Happy Polish players celebrate their place in the semifinals against Serbia

Well, at least some of my predictions for the semifinals worked out: Denmark will indeed get the chance to have revenge on Brazil for the loss in the preliminary round, but the Norway-France pairing will not materialize. Both teams made their way to the quarterfinals, but there it came to an end.

France had looked relatively steady and comfortable in the preliminary round, and they easily got past Japan. But against Poland they suddenly appeared lacking in confidence and fighting spirit. Some of the veterans were not in old form and some of the newcomers looked overwhelmed. By contrast, Poland came to the game with a lot of enthusiasm after having defeated Romania. They just played their style and never let up. It was refreshing to see their attitude, and the 22-21 victory was deserved. And the Swedish team sitting at home watching may now feel some sense of consolation, after they were so criticized by being kicked out by Poland in the qualifying.

Poland will now have to deal with the home team Serbia. Just as in EURO2012, where Serbia was also the hosts, it seemed again that playing in front of a boisterous home crowd made a real difference. This had already been noticed in the previous round, where Serbian hooligans used green lasers in the face of the Korean 7-meter shooters. Norway got off to a great start with good goalkeeping and a fast-paced game, and it seemed that they were on a winning path. But suddenly the lost their rhythms, resorting to crazy shooting and beginning to leak on defense. In particular, they were not able to cope with the ‘heavy-weight’ circle-runner Cvijic. So much to the delight of the spectators, Serbia turned a 15-20 deficit into a 25-22 edge and never looked back. Norwegian spectators and media were dumbfounded and coach Hergeirsson was criticized for having been too passive. The unofficial Serbian anthem ‘The march to Drina’ could be heard with increasing fervor.

Denmark started out in a way similar to Norway, using fast-breaks and speed to get ahead. But gradually the German team fought back. It was then a tough game with an uncertain outcome for most of the game, until Denmark again was able to get a grip towards the end. The end result was 31-28. It had seemed already in the ’round of 16′ against Montenegro that Denmark was back in shape after a hapless preliminary round. So even if they were occasionally struggling today, they are probably going to be a tough nut to crack for Brazil in the semifinal; and then there is that element of revenge!

It is hard to know how Brazil will react after their victory today. They had occasionally been unconvincing in the previous game against Netherlands, and now they had an even more experienced opponent in form of Hungary. Of course, I had really dismissed the weak effort of Hungary in the preliminary round, but against Spain they then showed improvement and today they were again good enough to win, And it was close, with Brazil seemingly getting undisciplined before the result after 60 minutes was set at 26-26. The lack of discipline and some bad luck with referee decisions continued, so I was prepared to give up on our PanAmerican friends. But in the end their determination was greater and they pulled away to 33-31 in the second half of the second overtime. Alexandra played a dominant role, but both goalkeepers also contributed to the win. So now Brazil is through to the semi-final for the first time ever. Will they still be ‘hungry’ and ready to go for more after that achievement? Other PanAmerican teams are certainly hoping so, because a Brazilian gold medal would mean that no less than FIVE PanAmerican teams will be able to participate in the 2015 World Championship.