Play the Game 2009

By Christer Ahl

Six months ago, I used my Facebook and got the help of some friends to use their web pages to announce my need for an urgent kidney transplant.   So very many of you responded with best wishes and encouragement, and I thank all of your for this support which was invaluable in a difficult time.

But I was not so optimistic that my efforts would lead me to someone who would be willing to donate a kidney.  However, I am enormously happy to inform you that the miracle happened!  And it happened through my decades of involvement in sports, especially in handball.  An ex-player and now coach in PanAmerica, whom I met many years ago, when I was a referee and an instructor, saw my postings.  This fantastic man had already had in mind the idea of donating an organ, and when he now saw my name and photo, he decided to come forward.  Obviously, I am eternally grateful to him!

We are both doing well, and my kidney function is now very strong again.  And it was a special coincidence that our transplant surgery took place, precisely during the days of the handball competition in Rio.  This is to me a story about the meaning of the ‘true Olympic spirit’!


IHF and Qatar ruin the big event

Qatari Referee Saleh Jamaan Bamurtef issues a yellow card warning against Croatia.   Officiating was inconsistent to say the least in Qatar.

Qatari Referee Saleh Jamaan Bamurtef issues a yellow card warning against Croatia. Officiating was inconsistent to say the least in Qatar.

Former chair of the IHF Playing Rules and Referees (PRC) Commission, Christer Ahl, takes the IHF and Qatar to task for inconsistent officiating and unfair advantages for the host nation.

This should have been the exciting, biennial competition, where all the focus would be on the star players and the entertainment and excitement they are able to offer.   There would be an expectation of fair play and evenhanded refereeing, in the spirit of ‘let the best team win!’ But this time, the IHF and the Qatari host conspired in various ways, so that the focus instead was on the mercenaries of what purported to be a Qatari national team, the many advantages they obtained, and the totally inconsistent refereeing which often was the deciding factor in key games.

Can everything be bought?

It all started in 2011, when to the surprise of many, the IHF Council decided to award the hosting of the 2015 event to Qatar.   Especially against the background of the more publicized affairs around the awarding of the 2022 football World Cup to Qatar, there have also been many suspicions and accusations surrounding the IHF decision for handball. It is ironic that the country favored to be awarded this event in 2015 was precisely France, the opponents of Qatar in the final, who now had to deal with the extra burden of being up against the home team and all that this implies.

But the main topic for many observers was that Qatar had imported eleven players to fill all the key positions on their team, taking advantage of their own rules for awarding ‘half citizenship’ in Qatar, in combination with the very lenient rules of the IHF regarding changes in citizenship. (By contrast, FIFA has much stricter rules in football). We find it normal that wealthy club teams use their resources to acquire the best players in the world, but we have come to expect, until now, that national teams are genuine national teams.

Another aspect, unrelated to the Qatari team that instead became a problem for many other teams in important games, were the incredible nominations given to the incompetent Qatari referees. They were allowed to ruin several important games, and in one game the clearly affected the result, unfairly preventing Brazil from getting a sensational win against Croatia in the ‘round of 16’. It is difficult to imagine that the iHF Referee Chief was so oblivious to this problem, so one must assume that the instructions must have ‘come down from above’.

Referees under pressure

With their imported team, it was no surprise that Qatar advanced from the group stage to the elimination matches.   And here it soon began to look as if the path towards a possible final was being paved for the home team. It was conspicuous that all the referee couples who have a reputation for being particularly capable of standing up to pressure were kept away from the games of Qatar in the ‘round of 16’, the quarterfinal and the semifinal. And in all cases, ‘less resistant’ referees were seen by neutral observers as having had a lot to do with the Qatari wins in very narrow games. In turn, Austria, Germany and Poland left the court fuming about mysterious decisions in critical moments, and also totally neutral observers found it to be a bit too much.

During my own time as the person ultimately responsible for the refereeing and the fair play on the court in IHF events, I am only too familiar with the situation.   In 2007 in Germany, the IHF somehow seemed to ‘owe’ the gold medals to the host country, and many aspects were set up to favor the hosts. This included the situation in the quarterfinal and semifinal, where all tickets had been sold to German fans, and where IHF bosses even prevented me and my colleagues from taking warranted action against the home team. At least we tried to offset the pressure by assigning referees who were known to be courageous, but not even that helped. And in 2009, when the Croatian home team lost the final against France, I received threats for having assigned referees who were known to stay neutral and resistant. Here in Qatar, amazingly the situation was instead exacerbated through questionable nominations.

Irresponsible changes in rules interpretations and instructions

Many handball fans who follow European top level competition are likely to agree that the intentions of the 2010 rule book to clamp down on cynical and dangerous action have never really been realized. The IHF and the EHF have not been willing or able to insist on a closer adherence to the spirit of the rules, so the cynicism and dirty tricks have flourished.   Therefore, I applaud the intentions of the IHF, as discussed and agreed in a conference of all stakeholders, including top coaches, a few months ago, to make a more concerted effort in the context of the next set of rules changes and instructions.

But, what the IHF president then suddenly decided, was totally crazy and irresponsible! The IHF Referee Commission and Coaching Commission were ordered to implement new, stricter interpretations with immediate effect in Qatar.   Moreover, this was done without any forewarning to the team, who normally would be fully informed about major changes 6-12 months ahead of time in order to be able to adapt and prepare. Instead, they got a brief explanation the day before the event started….! No wonder that media around the world have been filled with shocked reports from the flood of punishments given out to unsuspecting players and teams, who cannot understand what has happened.

However, it seems that one specific team, namely Qatar, must have been extremely well informed about the new, stricter rules interpretation and completely ready to adjust to it, so that they actually deserved by far many fewer punishments than all the other teams. Because it is not very pleasant to think of other possible explanations as to why the referees, in game after game, found very few reasons to give 2-minute suspensions against Qatar…

The referees put in an impossible position

Clearly, a sudden adaptation to new standards would have been difficult for the referees even if the team had been prepared and ready to cooperate. But now the referees were caught between protesting teams and an awareness that if they did not follow instructions, they would risk being sent home after the group stage.   Some referees handle this kind of adaptation and pressure better than others, but it is clear that inconsistencies are likely to arise both during matches and from one match to another.   Some referees got carried away, taking too tough a line in a not very rough match, while others fell back into their habits of recent years.

What is worse is that uncertainties around a new interpretation always serve to increase the scope for biases and one-sided treatment of teams. In other worse, there are more ‘opportunities’ for referees to fall for the pressures that I discussed above, simply because the number of ‘marginal’ decisions will increase.   Moreover, if the teams did not always manage, or want, to adapt to the new interpretations, it seems that they quickly saw an opportunity to gain unfair advantages instead. What I mean is that if the player knows that the referees will be more ready to punish conspicuous fouls, then they will resort to ‘theater’ and exaggerate the impact of a foul or even ‘nicely’ fall to the floor at the slightest touch.

Unfortunately it appears that the massive confusion and criticism was too much for the IHF leaders to handle in a level-headed and constructive way.   Horror stories about abusive criticism and confused feedback for the referees are floating around. And now, even before the event finished, my successor as IHF Referee Chief, who had my support when I was ‘exiled’ in 2009, has given a shocking interview in the main German handball web site:  Link

Essentially, he sees himself as blameless and instead declares half of the referee groups as idiots who are not talented and smart enough to understand their instructions.   So he states that they will be kicked out. These are the words from the person responsible for rules interpretations in recent years and for selecting the referees for Qatar. So if you want to blame the referees for some of the things you saw, perhaps you need to look elsewhere.   The behavior and attitude of the IHF president appears to be contagious! I can only feel sorry for the top referees who are asked to do a very demanding job.

Some conclusions

With all the problems indicated above, like the rules permitting ‘mercenary teams’, and the deliberate incompetence on the part of many IHF leaders, added to the scandalous process involving teams kicked out (Australia), given free places in the event (Germany, Iceland and Saudi Arabia), or inexplicably overlooked as candidates for available places (Hungary and Serbia), one wonders whether there is any basis for taking IHF’s ‘World Championships’ seriously any longer. (As you may have noticed, this is the only time that I have even used that label in this text).

Perhaps the time has come to eliminate these events, as they have lost their integrity. Perhaps it is better to let the individual continents arrange championships for national teams, including qualifications for the Olympic Games, and otherwise simply continents and nations concentrate on competitions for club teams, where there is no pretense that nationality matters. In that case, perhaps the time has also come to eliminate the IHF, because beyond the task of organizing fictitious championships the IHF does not really do much to justify its existence!


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.


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.


Women’s World Championship: yes, we knew which teams would be in the ’round of 16′

Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara Arenhart was almost unbeatable today, but perhaps Denmark will get the chance for revenge in a semifinal!?

Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara Arenhart was almost unbeatable today, but perhaps Denmark will get the chance for revenge in a semifinal!?

Before the start of the event, I admitted to John Ryan that I was not inspired by the task of offering a prediction of the outcome of the preliminary round. I felt sure that I knew which teams would advance to the ’round of 16′, which teams would be playing for positions 17-20 and which teams would have to be content with fighting for places 21-24. And I now deserve no applause for being proven right.

It is discouraging to see that, year after year, we cannot find any newcomers from outside Europe among the top teams. Brazil, Angola and Korea are there, and Japan also qualified for the ’round of 16; simply because there were no more than 12 European participants. We now hear rumors that the budget of the International Handball Federation (IHF) could expect a major increase, due to very favorable TV rights contract with Al-Jazeera. Let us hope that finally this will ‘force’ the IHF to spend a more appropriate amount of resources on helping the federations which perennially seem to be next in line to move up and compete with the Europeans. Yes, the newest and weakest federations must also get more help, but for the sake of the image and credibility of handball as a global sport, the priority must be to expand rapidly the ‘middle class’.

We now had a situation where 13 games were won by a margin of at least 20 goals and another 14 games were won by 10 to 19 goals. This should not happen in an elite event. The average goal difference in a game was just about 11 goals! We saw results such as 51-20, 44-21 (twice) and 40-6. And we had a half-time result of 14-0, when the Paraguay team was held scoreless for 32 minutes by their Spanish opponents. By contrast, there were no ties, and only four games (out of 60) were decided by a one-goal margin.

But it could be argued that among the top four teams in each group, there was some excitement in the fight regarding the internal ranking, which determines the likely strength of the opponents in the ’round of 16′ and the path towards the medals. In Group A, France came out ahead, after probably having worried about each of their three pursuers. Montenegro has not shown the same positive spirit as when they won EURO2012, but they managed to come in second. Korea seems far from their old level of medal contenders. In Group B, the top three positions were settled in the very last group game, where Brazil shocked Denmark by grabbing a large early lead which they managed to maintain until the end. This meant that the Serbian hosts got the second place, while Denmark amazingly had to accept third place.

Group C went to the favorites from Norway, followed by Spain, Poland and Angola, even though the Norwegians never looked really convincing so far. In Group D, it was probably a surprise to some that an injury-plagued Germany would manage to beat all the three European opponents. But those teams generally seemed weaker than expected, and especially Hungary was a disappointing shadow of what they have shown during many years now. One gets the impression that it is difficult for many of the European teams to be in top form for a championship every year. Integrating new players and coping with injuries makes it tough.

This leaves us with the following match-ups for the ’round of 16′: in the top half we have Brazil-Netherlands, with the winner playing the winner of Spain-Hungary in the quarterfinal; similarly we have the pairings Denmark-Montenegro and Germany-Angola. In the bottom half, we have first Serbia-Korea and next to them Norway-Czech Republic; in the final quarter of the draw that leaves us with Romania-Poland and France-Japan. About half of these match-ups really would seem to suggest intensive battles. The old Olympic finalists from Denmark and Korea will have to watch out for the local favorites from Montenegro and Serbia. But I will now be brave and predict that in the semifinals we will have a revenge opportunity between Brazil and Denmark and then a repetition of the 2011 final between Norway and France. What Is your prediction?


EHF refereeing getting out of control

This is the kind of disgraceful situation that is inappropriately turned into a joke.

This is the kind of disgraceful situation that is inappropriately turned into a joke.

Readers of my articles in recent years know that I am often praising the European Handball Federation (EHF) for organizing and running its business and its events in a professional manner, sometimes in contrast with what can be seen from the International Handball Federation (IHF).  But you will then also have noticed that, on several occasions, I have seen clear reasons to criticize the EHF severely, typically regarding issues involving inappropriate distortions of the global playing rules or poor handling of situations where punishment of actions by players and coaches has been required.

One example is the EHF practice to go against the rules and give out automatic suspensions in situations where referees have given a disqualification (‘red card’) under the provision of the rules where they alone have the right decide that the infraction falls into a category for which NO further punishment is warranted.   Another example is the feeble handing of grotesque cases of misbehavior of coaches, where the image of the EHF and of our sport is at stake, but where the EHF has found some excuse for letting the culprit escape with essentially a ‘slap on wrist’.  Examples are the action of the Hypo manager Prokop who entered the court to stop a counterattack for the opponents, and the Serbian coach who held on to the shirt of a player on the opposing team on the court in a game in the 2012 European Championship.  The latter situation was quite inappropriately turned into some kind of joke.

However, during the early stages of the 2013-14 season, the focus has been much more on the effect of questionable refereeing in the men’s and women’s Champions League and most recently in EHF Cup matches.  There has been an abundance of games, especially in the men’s Champions League, where the referees have been unable to control to action sufficiently and where cynical players have ‘taken matters into their own hands’.  As a result, many games have more resembled wrestling, rugby or American football, with players in piles on the floor and with a generally unpleasant atmosphere.  Of course, this reality does not remain a secret, as the EHF-TV webcasts make the scenes available to handball fans around the globe.    In some cases, the issue has been more an apparently deviation from the expectation of equal treatment of both teams, as instead one team, typically the home team, has been getting unwarranted favors.

And the problems have not been limited to the men’s Champions League.  Very recently, a key game, Baia Mare-Thuringer, in the preliminary groups on the women’s side led to strong reaction both from the losing team and from web viewers.  The refereeing was grossly one-sided, as a serious video analysis will easily confirm.  Regrettably, the coach from the losing team was unable to refrain from accusations about bribery.  This is a serious statement which cannot be permitted unless there is clear evidence.  So now the EHF has to investigate both the refereeing and the rash words by the coach.   And as a culmination, we just had the Zomimak-Aarhus game in the men’s EHF Cup, where incompetent referees allowed a level of outright violence that does not belong on a handball court.  A Youtube video clip from this game has caused very negative propaganda worldwide.

It is clear that the EHF competition system is so large that the supply of competent referees may not quite match the demands.  In comparison with the IHF and its handful of World Championships each year, the EHF must rely on a much larger pool, which includes older referees who were not able to qualify for the IHF level, referees discarded by the IHF, and young new EHF referees without much experience.  But I have enough experience from referee nominations and enough up-to-date knowledge of the top referees used by the EHF (in part by following most of the Champions League games on the internet), so I can firmly state that the EHF should be able to do a MUCH better job of matching the available referees with the demands of the games in the different competitions.  I can only speculate about the motivations for what is taking place, but I would label many of the nominations for the Champions League careless, cynical or experimental.

Even worse, a careful analysis makes you wonder about the presence of ‘geopolitical’ considerations, which sometimes seem to outweigh concerns about quality.  Certain referees and referees from certain regions get puzzling assignments where they are ‘in over their heads’ or cannot resist the pressures from spectators, and certain teams seem to get ‘strange’ nominations.   It makes you wonder both about the role of the entire Referee Committee in this regard, and the existence of ‘checks and balances’.  And it gives the impression that, just as in the case of legal procedures (where a ‘hands off’ approach may be more understandable and appropriate), the EHF top management in the case of the management of the refereeing carelessly turns a blind eye to what is happening.   Clearly, the impact is much too important both for the image of the EHF and for our sport overall.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that it is being rumored that the IHF has found it appropriate to introduce a special effort to monitor and support the IHF referees throughout the year in their performances in their own respective continents.  This has been a shortcoming over many years, especially as new recruits at the IHF level tend be younger and less experienced than in the past, so it is a topic that I myself tried to pursue during my IHF period.  And it is now becoming more realistic, as the IHF Referee Committee is monitoring many continental events outside Europe and as it is possible to follow the top European events through web streaming and video.  The IHF referees benefit from educational efforts and close supervision during the course of World Championships, but they need, and deserve, more continuous and systematic support.  The IHF deserves credit for recognizing that.


‘Play the Game’: The World Cup and the Olympics – has Brazil taken on too much

The stadium in Sao Paulo was badly damaged irecently in a deadly accident during the final stages of construction

The stadium in Sao Paulo was badly damaged irecently in a deadly accident during the final stages of construction

The two most sought after sports events in the world are the Olympic Games and the World Cup in football.   Brazil will host the World Cup next year (so the draw for the groups took place yesterday) and then the summer Olympics in 2016.   Clearly there are many reasons why countries go after these events: the prestige of being able to handle the event, the world-wide publicity and the hope for longer-term tourism revenues, and the domestic PR value and possible boost for the national economy.  But when countries bid for these events, it is not uncommon to downplay the risks and the negative aspects, and many bidders do not care about the public opinion.

The reality is also that both events have taken on such proportions, due to the ‘ratcheting effect’ that flows from the desire to outdo previous organizers, the selfish demands of FIFA and IOC, and the sense that only a really spectacular event will create the PR effect that was sought.  This means that not many countries have the resources and infrastructure to handle the burden, and some of those who do find it better to decline the opportunity.  At the same time, it has become a matter of prestige for both IOC and FIFA to award the events to continents and regions which, for obvious reasons, have not had the opportunity before.   This means that the need for major construction efforts in a difficult setting is becoming more common.

If then, like in the case of the World Cup, Brazil makes it a matter of prestige to spread the event to many more locations than is strictly necessary, and to include places that seem rather farfetched choices, such as Manaus in the Amazonas and Cuiaba near the Bolivian border, then that seems to be asking for trouble.  Several completely new stadiums had to be constructed, whereas others amount to complete renovations of old structures.   All the stadiums were supposed to be finished this month to provide some margin, but clearly this is not going to happen.  Several have work left for the next few months, and the stadium in Sao Paulo, the Itaquerao, which is supposed to host the opening match, is of course now giving special reasons for concern after the deadly accident just a couple of weeks ago,

There is a race against the clock also as regards the arenas for the 2016 Olympics. The IOC is undertaking frequent inspections, and it has been a roller-coaster of gloomy predictions and more upbeat reports of good progress.  There are concerns about many aspects of the infrastructure, such as the roads and the public transit, the scarcity of hotel accommodations, and environmental aspects.  Worries about revenues from key sponsorships and the possibly of interference through public protests also remain.  The IOC President is expected to show up and apply pressure in the next few weeks.

During the ‘Play the Game’ conference, senior Brazilian officials attempted to provide a sense of reassurance.  What had especially raised questions among media and sports officials around the world was the increasing sense that large segments of the public in a football-crazy and sports-minded country such as Brazil had taken to the streets in often violent manifestations against the public expenditure, initially on the World Cup.  In a country where there are widespread and deeply rooted concerns about poverty, public health, the failures of the educational system and the many shortcomings in the investments for basic infrastructure, there are many who doubt the wisdom of the massive one-time investments in sports facilities and directly related projects.  “The country just cannot afford it, the priorities are all wrong, and there will never be a real return on these investments” is the basic complaint.

The Communications Director for the World Cup, Saint-Clair Milesi, tried to paint a different picture.  He emphasized that the infrastructure improvements will be helpful also for the general public, even though massive road and telecommunications projects in the jungle and in the wetlands might seem to be something very different from a more systematic effort focusing on where the most acute needs exist.  Milesi also noted that the public expenditure is surpassed by private investments that otherwise might not be forthcoming.  And the representative from the Comptroller General in Brazil pointed to the savings that his office had been able to achieve in the contracting, and he noted that many projects had actually come in under budget.   But such stories appear to do very little to appease the opposition, and it remains to be seen whether the final construction stages, and then the actual events, will avoid becoming a catalyst for social unrest and massive protests.