San Francisco CalHeat recently picked up the first ever USA and North American club victory in IHF Super Globe history as they took down the University of Queensland, the Oceania representive, 27-22. This was celebrated on the IHF and USA Team Handball websites as an historic first ever victory. Is it still historic if only a handful of the atletes are American citizens and only 1/3 of the athletes on the roster live anywhere near San Francisco? Maybe… but I can’t get very excited about it.
Before I explain fully why I feel that way I think it’s appropriate to identify a few caveats and a few realizations that I’m a bit of an old timer hyprocite. Here they are:
- I doubt that SF CalHeat and several other U.S. clubs are breaking any IHF, NACHC or USA Team Handball regulations. (Maybe those regulations should be changed, but that’s a whole other issue.)
- Boosting club prospects by bringing in mercenary athletes from other locales is nothing new. I’ve even done it myself, inlcluding the 2004 USA National Championships when I played for the Atlanta based Condors while I was living in France. (CalHeat is taking this practice, however, to new extremes)
- I don’t blame athletes for jumping at the opportunity to play in an IHF Super Globe. Heck, I wonder how crazy recruitment would have gotten back in my day if a similar opportunity had existed.
- A critique of this mercenary team doesn’t denigrate great CalHeat initiatives like their support to youth development
So with these caveats out of the way let’s take a deep dive into the roster
The SF CalHeat 2023 IHF Super Globe Roster
The information below was compiled from the official IHF Super Globe roster, IHF Super Globe stats, social media accounts, google searches and other sources. I’m not 100% certain as to where everyone lives and there might be some errors. (Translation: everything you find on the internet isn’t always accurate)
- Left Wings
- Jorge Prieto, Spanish, 3/8 shots <Lives in Spain, plays for CB Torrelavega>
- Mikio Tada, Japanese, 1/4 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
- Drew Bradley, American, 0/3 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
- Left Backs
- Ole Olsen, Norwegian, 13/34 shots <Lives in Norway, attended SF State for a semester>
- Hjalte Clausen, Danish, 1/3 shots <Lives in Minnesota>
- Max Paulus, German, 1/1 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
- Center Backs
- Eloy Rubio, Spanish, 6/16 shots < Lives in Spain, previously lived in SF Bay Area>
- Kasper Ogendahl, Danish, 9/17 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
- Righ Backs
- Felix Raff, German, 22/42 shots <Lives in Germany, Plays for HSG Leinfelden-Echterdingen
- Daniel Eggert, Danish, 7/13 shots <Lives in Germany>
- Right Wings
- Paul Assfalg, German, 7/11 shots <Lives in Houston>
- Yannick Te Morsche, German, 0/4 shots <Lives in Germany, Plays for TuS Lintfort>
- Circle Runners
- Drew Donlin, American, 14/24 shots <Lives in Los Angeles>
- Benjamin Geisser, Swiss, 10/17 shots <Lives in Switzerland, Played for St Otmar, now retired>
- Jonathan Garcia, American, 2/3 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
- Lucas Kroger, German, 22/92, saves <Lives in Germany, Lived in Miami previously>
- Fredrik Jacobsen, Norwegian, 25/61 saves <Lives in Norway, Attended Cal Berkeley>
- Mohamed Balti, American, 1/21 saves <Lives in SF Bay Area>
Here are some takeaways from this roster
- 22% (4 of 18) athletes have American citizenship. Complaints that some U.S. clubs have too many expats on their roster are nothing new. And, the U.S. is not the only country where this is a concern. German national team coaches have complained that there are too many foreigners on HBL rosters and that this is limiting the development of German athletes. Why even Kielce, who CalHeat played in group play, has just 47% with Polish citizenship on their roster. That said… Kielce is a professional team. I doubt very much that lower level, amateur clubs in Poland have rosters with a high percentage of foreign athletes.
- 33% (6 of 18) athletes live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Complaints that some U.S. clubs have only a limited connection to the city they claim to be from are also nothing new, but CalHeat has clearly taken this issue to a new extreme. While some athletes on the roster have a connection to San Francisco in that they lived there previously this is a tenuous connection at best. And, worse, I suspect that some athletes on the roster have never even set foot in San Francisco. Finally, for context… I’m guessing with a high degree of confidence that everyone on the Kielce roster lives in the Kielce area.
- 14% (13 of 96) goals were scored by San Francisco Bay Area teams. I highlight this stat as a proxy for the relative contributions of the local athletes vs the merenary additions. It’s an imperfect proxy, but nonetheless it points to the reality that without mercenaries this club would likely have lost to Queensland and would have been really clobbered by the other clubs participating. Further, such a team would probably have lost to the clubs at the NACHC Club Championships and would not have qualified for the IHF Super Globe in the first place. I can’t say for sure as the rosters are flexible and there’s nothing that prevents clubs from other nations also bring in mercenaries of their own. Again… I don’t think anyone is breaking any rules.
Minimal Promotional Value and Unintended Consequences
There are some common refrains I often hear when I point out the problems with initiatives like this. The most common one I hear is along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s important to promote handball in the U.S.” There is a kernel of truth to this… but, just a tiny kernel. That’s because the promotional value is so minimal. Maybe a 1,000 people in the U.S. (already handball fans) are even aware that a U.S. club is participating in an International club tournament. I guess if the goal is to give the world-wide handball community the impression that great progress is being made by having a “handball club from San Francisco” taking on the rest of the world… Well, you can fool some, but people are smarter than you think.
And, in this case the consequences are more than just inadequate promotion. Indeed, if the goal is to support handball development in countries like the U.S. the IHF Super Globe is actually having a negative effect. This is because good intentions (providing amateur clubs with a mostly paid for trip to take on the world’s best pros) has had the unintended consequence of super charging the incentive for amatuer clubs to boost their roster with mercenaries. While a club might prefer to simply go with the local athletes that practice with the club on a regular basis… if they really want to win they’ll need to expand their roster with athletes that have nothing to do with local development.
Addressing Mercenary Teams
Addressing “merencary teams” might seem rather straightforward, but it’s more complicated than you might think. Broadly, there are 2 ways of discouraging clubs from acquiring mercenary athletes:
- 1) Legislate them away. Basically, this involves adding regulation requirements for citizenship and/or locality. Clubs in Europe have done this for many sports. Many countries had or still have rules that limit the number of American basketball players. Even handball has them as I know France limits the number of non-French citizens on lower level teams. Nationality enforcement can be done simply with a passport check. Locality restrictions, however are more challenging to determine and enforce. Years ago USA Team Handball tried to enforce this with athletes being requred to bring a utility bill with an address, but as I recall this was a short lived effort, probably due to enforcement challenges
- 2) Make it financially challenging. Anyone who has played club handball in the U.S. knows that some clubs have regular season rosters that get boosted with new talent at the National Championships. This was because athletes would fly in (sometimes even from Europe) just for the one tournament that mattered each year. A requirement was then added for athletes to have played in at least one regular season tournament prior to nationals. The added cost of an extra trip tamped down on some mercenary participation, but didn’t eliminate it. I suspect that the recent addition of the Super Globe carrot has resulted in at least some athletes deciding it was still worth the cost to play with a team far away.
A Simple Solution: Change the IHF Super Globe to a Professional Club Only Event
While the U.S. could take steps to discourage mercenary teams it wouldn’t prevent other nations from doing so. And, while the IHF or the NACHC could theoretically step in with regulations that would discourage mercenary teams on a continental level enforcing those regulations would be challenging.
In fact, I’m not sure if there are any NACHC regulations regarding Super Globe qualification team rosters. I’m sure there are IHF regulations, but I suspect they are somewhat vague and/or loose in terms of requirements. How else could one explain the CalHeat roster?
I think the best solution would be to simply change the IHF Super Globe to a professional club only event. An event limited to continental federations with professional clubs. Clubs where all the athletes on the roster are are under contract for some TBD minimal amount.
And, then if the IHF wants to foster development in emerging nations like the U.S. they could support inititiatives that are focused on developing the sport. Because this initiative while well intentioned is clearly not having that effect.