Summer topics in Europe

Whenever someone has the resources and the determination to take new initiatives, it always tends to cause a stir, with both support and criticism.  Jesper Nielsen, a wealthy Danish businessman has the financial capacity to go against prevailing trends of cut-backs and economic worries in European club handball.  He is able, as an owner and sponsor, to keep two strong teams going, AG Kopenhamn and Rhein-Neckar-Lowen, but not without controversy.

OF course, it gives the European Handball Federation (EHF) some headaches, when the issue related to dual ownership comes up.  In theory at least, there seems to be some scope for manipulation, if clubs that are participating in the same event, such as the Champions League, are under the same management.  But there is also some agitation in Germany, where the R-N-L manager Thorsten Storm has criticized his boss for giving lower priority to the German club in favor of AGK.   Storm has expressed concerns that R-N-L has not been getting the resources and the attention that the club needs and deserves.  Instead, top players, such as Olafur Stefansson, are now moving from R-N-L to AGK.

And despite the excitement that the emergence of AGK has created in Denmark, there are very much mixed feelings about having the men’s league dominated too strongly by one team.  The financial status and the competitiveness of the Danish league are seen as depending on the excitement generated by a tough and close competition for the title and the top positions among several more or less equal teams.  And of course, a little bit of envy may also have something to do with negative reactions.

Moving on to Spain, perhaps a little bit of parity is on the horizon, after what has become known about the financial problems of the two totally dominating clubs in recent years, namely Ciudad Real and Barcelona.  We are probably only days away from a decision regarding Ciudud Real and a seemingly unavoidable move to Madrid.  But contrary to what I commented on in a recent article, it now seems that the best bet is a merger, not with Real Madrid but with football rival Atletico Madrid.  This of course offers an interesting twist, as in fact Atletico Madrid was a handball team with great traditions as the dominating club in the 1960s and again in the 1980s.  Famous coaches, such as the Domingo Barcenas and the current Federation president Juan de Dios Roman Seco combined with Spanish and international star players to gain numerous League championships and cup wins.

Barcelona’s triumph in the handball Champions League may have made it impossible for the football-focused club management to mistreat handball completely.  But a major budget cut-back seems already decided.  The expenses for the football team have sky-rocketed, due to both successful and disastrous player acquisitions.  It was noted that the net loss after the initial purchase and subsequent bargain sale of Ibrahimovic was in the order of 40-50 million Euros, which is much more than the entire budget for handball.  So now handball and basketball will be treated much less generously (and baseball is eliminated altogether), and what this might mean in terms of the ability to keep a generously staffed and paid handball team, with many international imports, is hard to predict.

The EHF has also had some concerns about developments in other ‘corners’ or Europe.  In most parts of the former Yugoslavia, there has been a strong interest in cooperating around a regional league, which would provide some interesting competition not just for the top clubs but also for those who miss out on the top EHF events.  Slovenian clubs seem to prefer to focus on their own league, and the top Hungarian clubs have also declined invitations.  Instead, Tatran Presov from Slovakia (who would need to win a qualifying group in order to be in the EHF Champions League) would like to take part.  Some interest also seems to exist in Poland, especially on the part of Kielce, who have a seemingly very strong team but stilled managed to miss the Polish title and the chance to participate again in Champions League.

However, it appears that the EHF has asserted its privileges regarding ‘cross-border’ competitions.  It would not seem possible to deny neighboring countries the chance to organize an exchange on an ongoing basis, but the intended participation of precisely Tatran, a non-neighbor of the Balkan countries, seemed to give the EHF a basis for stepping in.  Apart from this particular league, which had preferred to shed its ‘Balkan’ label, for the more flexible name ‘Southeastern Handball Association’, there are similar regional efforts among the Baltic countries and the BeNeLux, whose clubs rarely get very far in EHF competitions.  Apart from the principles involved, and the obvious reluctance to encourage rivaling events, it seems that the EHF also might have some concerns about the image issues that could follow from a potential lack of discipline, poor crowd control and shaky refereeing in some region.


Is ’50-50′ refereeing not what we want??

I have touched on this topic in some other context in the past, but the Gislason embarrassment (which I wrote about last week) causes me to bring it up again.  After a game where Kiel played unbelievably poorly and also were let down by their normally great goalkeeper Omeyer, coach Gislason had the nerve to wonder in public if the EHF had ordered the referees to keep Kiel out of the Final Four.  Amazingly, three weeks later there has been no EHF announcement of action taken in response to Gislason’s accusation of fraudulent behavior on the part of the EHF, with the complicity of the referees.

But it appears that a major cause for the anger was that the referees had the audacity to be neutral!  They did not follow the example of most referees in ‘home and away’ competition under the jurisdiction of the EHF, i.e., favoring the home team in a ’60-40′ fashion or something in that direction.  This past season I have watched around 75 games in the Champions League or in the other EHF Club competitions, live or on a delay basis, using the EHF-TV web casts.  So when I say that 60-40 is common and that the home team can count on at least 55-45, then I do have a basis for this statement. 

Having spent a long career in the IHF, where most events take place in one country and are decided through individual matches, I have always pondered the contrast with the many EHF events that are based on the ‘home and away’ system.   Most of the top EHF games are handled by referees who are also used in IHF events.  Yet, there is this blatant difference between refereeing that is reasonably close to 50-50 in neutral locations and refereeing that consistently tends to be 55-45 or 60-40 in favor of the home team in ‘home and away’ games.  This difference was clear when I attended the Men’s World Championship in Sweden and also saw many games from the Women’s European Championship on the internet. 

Over the years I have had many opportunities to discuss this issue with experts, including coaches, former top referees and psychologists.  We know that there are other advantages that come from being a home team:  no need for tiring travel, playing in a familiar and comfortable setting, and having the support of a sometimes fanatic home crowd.  But is it really unavoidable that a ‘refereeing bonus’ should come on top of these other, legitimate advantages?

Is the pressure so enormous in these games?  Are the referees genuinely striving very hard to offer 50-50 but fall victims to a subconscious, unintended bias that comes from the crowd pressure etc?   Is it related to the fact that the group of EHF referees that has the experience, competence and confidence to resist pressures and handle very difficult assignments is in fact quite small, smaller than what the EHF really would need for its vast competition activities?  Partly this may help explain the problem, but also the recognized top referees have problems of this kind.

Recently I wrote about the suspicion that referees knowingly try to ‘take the easy way out‘ in some game situations where they feel they can get away with this approach because chances are slim that they will be caught.  This concerned giving incorrect 7-meters when a defender is in fact standing outside the 6-meter line, not inside, when being run into by an attacker.  It also involved the temptation of allowing a goal scored after a foul that caused a player to touch the floor in the goal area before releasing the ball.  Here the correct solution would be a 7-meter, but too often a goal is given. 

Could it be that the same tendency, in a broader sense, exists in the handling of home/away games??  Is there a view that 55-45 or 60-40 is not just good ‘self-protection’ but also fully acceptable, because in the two games it comes out even?  I hope I am wrong in implying that referees may be so calculating, but I am beginning to fear that I am far too often justified in this belief.

The problem becomes acute when there are referees who are determined and able to stick to 50-50 also in ‘home and away’ games.  I know that clubs and national teams in Europe know exactly which referees they love to have when they play a difficult away game.  And by the same token, these are the referees whom they might prefer not to have at home.  My understanding is that the EHF, to some extent, try to assign referees in such a way that, for a given match-up, both matches are handled by ’50-50 couples’ or both matches are handled by referees who might be technically competent but are known to have a 55-45 or 60-40 tendency. 

Unfortunately, if the reader innocently wonders why we do not then insist that all referees stick to 50-50 so that we get consistency, I fear the answer is that this would not be realistic.  As I noted above, the number of EHF games is so huge and requires so many referees that there is little hope to get to a situation where one could rely exclusively on referees who are strong enough to live up to such an expectation.   But at least it might be a step in the right direction if the demands on the referees and, perhaps above all, the evaluation and follow-up of the referees were to be strengthened in this respect.

In the meantime, while the upcoming ‘Final Four’ may not offer an entirely neutral setting for German-Spanish match-ups, it is at least not a ‘home-away’ format.  So let us hope that the referees come with a determination to keep all the games under control and with a ’50-50′ objective.  In this regard, I am really pleased to see that Gjeding/Hansen, the solid Danish referees who were affected by the Gislason outrage, were promptly given a nomination for a game in the Final Four.   Good luck to all the couples!


Did the EHF order the referees to keep Kiel out of the Final Four??

Natural to react during the game, but not to bring accusations afterwards

Well, of course not!  In a certain other continent, this would not have been so surprising, if one thinks back to the scandal involving the qualifications for the 2008 Olympics, but surely not in Europe.   So when Kiel’s coach Alfred Gislason openly expressed this accusation to the media following the Kiel-Barcelona quarterfinal on May 1, the issue is not really whether his accusation had merit but why on earth is the EHF dealing with it in such a slow and bureaucratic manner!?

I know from experience that international and continental sports federations tend to be very formal and meticulous in dealing with disciplinary matters, and their regulations and procedures are often not set up to deal with urgent matters very swiftly.  And generally speaking, I have full respect for the concept of ‘due process’.  But here we are dealing with a matter that is both absolutely clear-cut and extremely serious.  There can be no doubt or dispute about what Gislason said.  And there can be no disagreement about how potentially damaging and completely unacceptable his action was.

Coaches are entitled to be frustrated after a key defeat and to have whatever opinions they want.  Up to a point, one can even tolerate some criticism of referees in public.  But there must be no tolerance for public statements that amount to asserting a complete lack of integrity on the part of the EHF, a pair of referees who deservedly enjoy a high reputation, and our sport as a whole!  For such extreme cases, special procedures must exist under which swift and serious punishment can be meted out.  Such a case just cannot be allowed to drag on!  

It is simply not good enough that the EHF after about ten days announced that “it has filed a claim with its Arbitration Tribunal”, and that after one more week there is no result and punishment.  In the meantime, Gislason is coaching Kiel in an IHF event, where he and his team are official representatives of Europe and the EHF!!  By comparison, in the context of NBA, NHL or the NFL, a decision and a suspension with immediate effect would have been in place within 24 hours.  The EHF, with its extensive competition activities and frequent matches, must ensure that an ’emergency procedure’ exists.  (And by the way, this kind of case illustrates why it is a bit awkward that the lowest level disciplinary body is labeled ‘Arbitration Tribunal’…).

I could stop there, because this is really the essence of the matter.  But it does cause me to comment on a couple of other aspects.

First, it has been rather interesting to read some of the comments in the German media.  Here one can find unbiased reports which recognize that Kiel played an unusually weak game against Barcelona, also when taking into account injury issues and other shortcomings of the line-up.  And it was also very clear that Omeyer had an extremely poor game, not just by his high standards but by any comparison.  Writers commented that Gislason, apparently like on several other occasions, had shown too much deference to his star goalie, not having the courage to take him out much earlier.  So it seems that it requires much less courage to blame it all on the referees and the EHF…

Second, there is one aspect of Gislason’s statement that may not have been given enough attention in media.  It may have its specific advantages to have a German-Spanish rivalry in the EHF club events, but it is rather doubtful that this is healthy and stimulating for the longer-term development.  Surely, the currently utopian idea of having eight countries from different parts of Europe represented in the quarter-finals would create even more widespread enthusiasm.  Football has a bit of an advantage in this respect, although admittedly precisely this year’s Europa League final causes similar grumbling.  Of course, the existing situation reflects a reality that nobody could quickly or easily change.  So one can only hope that economic circumstances will permit other leagues, or at least individual clubs, to increase their efforts to become more fully competitive.


Are they all ‘yes men’ or do some IHF/EHF members have a bit of courage?

There are different ways of showing courage or a lack thereof.  There is nothing funny about terrorist actions that leave more than a dozen people dead, as happened just a few days ago in Marrakech, the site of the IHF Congress that is about to open.  The attack was aimed at foreign visitors.  Clearly this raises questions about the wisdom of going ahead with such a high-visibility event as an international congress, attended by several hundred people from around the world.  No wonder that the IHF President quickly seemed eager to downplay the risks in public statements, instead emphasizing the determination of the Moroccan government, from the King down, to keep this a safe event.

That some member nations nevertheless announced their attention to cancel their participation is not what I suggest to be a lack of courage.  This may indeed be a very prudent decision, in the face of the IHF insistence to go ahead and ignore the risks.  It may have come too late, but the formal motion from Germany to adjourn the Congress and move it to the IHF Headquarters location of Basel at a slightly later date is absolutely reasonable.  So it might be more an indication of a lack of courage that not a sizeable number of Congress participants joined forces with the Germans and demanded that safety must be the top priority.

But, as I have noted in the context of seemingly quiet acceptance of inappropriate proposals and actions by the IHF in recent years, courage in terms of standing up for important principles and common sense is hard to find in global handball circles.  One conspicuous example, as I noted just a few days ago, is the EHF’s tactical decision to go along with the IHF regime’s proposed changes in the By-Laws.  These changes were deemed totally unacceptable to the EHF just one year ago, but suddenly there is absolutely no fighting spirit left.  The EHF points to one genuinely relevant concession that the IHF has made, namely regarding the rights to qualification events for World Championships and Olympic Games. 

But beyond that, the EHF is really not credible in trying to point to additional reasons.  The fact that the ‘EHF’ will not be obliged to change to ‘EHC’ when the IHF now insists on taking about continental CONFederations in the future is really impressive…  Bravo!  Congratulations, EHF to that great accomplishment!!  But even worse is the nonsense that it no longer should be so dangerous to allow the President to take a lot of vital decisions on his own between Executive meetings and between Council meetings…   How naïve can one be!?   It now says that the Executive or the Council must ratify such decisions retroactively.   But when we know that Council members are (almost literally) eating out of the hands of the President and that the Executive is so nicely loyal, what exactly does ‘ratify’ mean?  I think ‘rubberstamp’ would be the better word.  And who, other than the President, will even know about the decisions that should be submitted for rubberstamping?

So at least I see some courage, or at least a hint of ‘doing one’s duty’, when I see that 13 European federations have written to the EHF demanding a better explanation.  Perhaps I find it too politely worded and not forceful enough in its tone.  But at least it picks up on the right issues and it does amount to an attempt to ensure that a debate will be forthcoming.  I am not optimistic about the effect, even though I hope others will join in, but at least it shows that there are some supporters of global handball who are willing to follow through on their convictions.  Thank you for that!


EHF Game(s) of the Week: Barcelona at Celje (Live and with English Language Commentary) and Veszprem at Montpellier


Nikola Karabatic and Montpellier will battle Veszprem in a Group B showdown


Barcelona at Celje

OK, there’s only one official game of the week with live English commentary from Tom O’Brannagain.  That would be the Group A match between Slovenia’s, Celje and Barcelona.  With Barcelona locked into a third place seed, however, it’s debatable as to how good of match it will be.  Barca is clearly the better side but they won’t have any incentive to win.  Celje, on the other hand will be fully motivated as they are currently tied with France’s Chambery for the fourth place seed.  A win guarantees that Celje will advance, but they will also qualify if Chambery loses to Rhein-Neckar.  As the Chambery match starts 30 minutes ahead of time, don’t be surprised if there is some scoreboard watching in Slovenia.

The match is at 6:00 PM (Central European Time), 12:00 Noon (U.S. East Coast) on Saturday, 5 March.  Barcelona is a 3 goal favorite.

On Demand broadcast at ehfTV:

There is also a televised tape delayed broadcast on the MHz Network in the U.S. at 4:00 PM (U.S. East Coast) on Sunday 6 March. For information on how you can watch MHZ see this:

Interview with Celje right wing Gasper Marguc:

 Veszprem at Montpellier

The unofficial game of the week is clearly the Group B showdown between Montpellier and Veszprem for first place.  Veszprem won in Hungary 27-26, so Montpellier will need to win by 2 goals (or just 1 goal if they keep Veszprem under 26).  There’s a lot of incentive to finish first as the potential round of 16 opponents on the fourth rung are a significant step down from the third rung.  Not to mention the first seed opponents are also guaranteed not to meet each other until the Final Four in Cologne, thus avoiding a potential quarter-final pairing vs. Kiel or Ciudad Real.  Montpellier definitely has the edge here, but with Michael Guigou out and Vid Kavticnik questionable due to injuries, Karabatic will need to carry the load in this match. 

The match is at 5.30 PM (Central European Time), 11:30 Noon (U.S. East Coast) on Sunday, 6 March.  Montpellier is a 3 goal favorite.

On Demand broadcast at ehfTV:

EHF: Interview with Veszprem backcourt player,Gabor Csaszar:

Audio recording links are below.  Open the on demand video in one window and then click on the podcast link.  I do a countdown of the ehfTV clock in the lower left hand of the screen.  Pause the audio when I start the countdown and then play the video.  Then unpause the audio when you get to the appropriate time on the clock. 


EHF Game of the Week: Valladolid at Pick Szeged (Live and with English Language Commentary)

Szeged's Frantisek Sulc

Another Group C match is served up for this week’s game of the week.  Spanish side Valladolid travels to Hungary to take on Szeged.  Both sides are likely to advance to the round of 16, but still have strong motivation to win.  A win in Hungary would pretty much lock up second place for Valladolid and give them an outside opportunity to win the group.  Meanwhile, a Szeged win will qualify them for the round of 16 and put them in third place with a possibility of even moving up to second.

The match is at 6:00 PM (Central European Time), 12:00 Noon (U.S. East Coast) on Saturday, 26 February.  Valladolid is a 1.5 goal favorite

EHF Website interview with Pick Szeged’s Frantisek Sulc:

Live Broadcast link:

On Demand broadcast at ehfTV:

There is also a tape delayed broadcast on the MHz Network in the U.S. at 4:00 PM (U.S. East Coast). For information on how you can watch MHZ see this:


EHF Game of the Week: Chekhovskie Medvedi at Aalborg (Live and with English Language Commentary)

After a long layoff the Champions League is back with leg 8 of Group Play.  The featured match this week with English Commentary has Danish side Aalborg hosting Russian side Chekhovskie.  Chekhovskie is tied for first place in Group C with 11 points while Aalborg is in last place with 4 points.  Aalborg still can qualify for fourth place in the Group, but with only 3 matches to play they will need to start winning.  Chekhovskie is also highly motivated as they will want to move ahead of Spanish side Valladolid in their bid to win the coveted first seed heading into knockout play.

The match is at 4:50 PM (Central European Time), 10:50 AM (U.S. East Coast) on Sunday, 20 February.  Chekhovskie is a 3.5 goal favorite

EHF Website interview with left wing Timur Dibirov: Hungry for European handball:

Live Broadcast link:

On Demand broadcast at ehfTV:

There is also a tape delayed broadcast on the MHz Network in the U.S. at 4:00 PM (U.S. East Coast). For information on how you can watch MHZ see this: