Budget-conscious Swedes ‘sold’ part of the home court advantage

It has become increasingly common in recent decades that two countries join together and organize a World/European Championship.  But it is surely more unusual that the one and only organizer, in this case Sweden, more or less gives away home court advantage to one of the main rivals, Denmark.  This is what Sweden did, quite knowingly and for strictly financial/budgetary reasons, realizing that this might come back and haunt them on the court.

Malmö is located just some 20 minutes away from Copenhagen, just across the bridge.  But Sweden still had Denmark play both the preliminary round and the main round in Malmö, in front of crowds totally nominated by Danes.  And this even though Sweden knew that they would play in this group in the main round, after having started out with strong crowd support in Göteborg.  The fanatic Danes had even bought up most of the tickets for the main round in advance!

So it was really lucky for Sweden that the final match in the main round against Denmark was not a matter of managing vs failing to advance to the semi-finals;  instead it was ‘just’ a matter of avoiding France as an opponent in the semis.  Denmark won the game.  And then, can you imagine, the Danish fans had become so spoiled that they were genuinely upset and protested loudly when they realized that Sweden was finally using its privileges as organizer and the right to play the semi-final against France in the 12000-seat Malmö arena, while Denmark was ‘relegated’ to the 4000-seat arena in Kristianstad, 90 minutes further away from Copenhagen.

A frantic ticket swap effort ensued, both on the internet and outside the Malmö arena.  Danish supporters with tickets to Malmö now scrambled to find scarce tickets for their game, while peddling tickets to the Sweden semi-final in tough competition with the scalpers.  In the end, both teams really got overwhelming crowd support, but only Denmark managed to take advantage, beating Spain.

More generally, the Swedish way of organizing the event was indeed characterized by budget considerations and cost effectiveness.  Typically, the IHF and the organizer insist at the outset that “this will be the best Championship ever”.  And then the hope is that the IHF President will indeed use the key phrase ‘best ever’ in his post-event press conference.  But this time he pointedly chose a more modest label.

Certainly, the organization was not weak and error-prone.  The Swedes are experienced organizers of handball events, and they have the necessary infrastructure.  They know what it takes to put on events that are technically solid and offer all the services needed.  But the problem is that participants, especially the teams and the media, are used to being pampered in an unlimited manner, just for the sake of image and positive feedback.  Such extravagance is not the Swedish approach.

Instead the Swedes could point to having exceeded their budget estimates in all areas, including ticket sales.  And IHF could boast with a TV coverage to more countries and to larger aggregate audiences than ever before.  Of course, the number of tickets sold was not as huge as in Germany 2007 with consistently larger arenas. But the focus is more and and more on television coverage and an adaptation to ‘new media’.  The web cast coverage was a matter of special pride to the TV rights holder, UFA sports.


‘Dream final’ met the expectations

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that France-Denmark would be the most probable match-up for the final, and that this could be a ‘dream final’, if both teams played at their best.  The hope for such a ‘dream final’ came through.  After having demonstrated a convincing form in both the Preliminary Round and the Main Round, both teams were a bit below their best in the semi-finals which they still managed to win.  But in the final they  joined together in putting on real handball propaganda.

Most of the focus may now be on the remarkable feat of the French team in winning successive championships in 2008-11.  And one might want to discuss a bit further about the keys to this success.  But I would argue that we should now instead look ahead and note that we now have at least one other team that will make it tough to talk about France as the clear favorites in the Olympics in 2012 and the next World Championship in 2013.  The Danish team, and its situation for the next few years, has many of the same characteristics as the French one.

For me, the best way of describing the French team is that they have an absolutely remarkable framework of key players, into which it is possible to insert ‘role players’ and new young players who can help carry the team to success, even in the absence of top players such as Narcisse.   It was rather self-evident that Karabatic would be named Most Valuable Player of the Championship.  In several games, including the final, he ‘just’ stepped forward and secured a cushion for France with a couple of seemingly effortless goals.  And he gives his teammates on the offense benefit from the extra attention he is getting.   Of course, he has able support from his veteran colleague Jerome Fernandez, and Bertrand Gille is one of the very best pivots, but ‘specialists’ like Luc Abalo and Michael Guigou also get a chance to shine frequently.  But for me the remarkable thing is that this framework enables young players like Xavier Barachet and William Accambray to step right in and look the kind of stars that in fact they have not yet developed into being.  Also Sorhaindo and Honrubia played well in the earlier rounds.

Apart from Denmark, no other team seemed capable of successfully integrating new players in this way.  In particular Croatia, who in 2009 seemed to have several ‘almost stars’ ready to blossom, failed completely to provide good complements to the Balic-Vori axis. Sweden and Spain each had a good mix of old and young, but not with the same effect as France and Denmark.

But back to the French:  it is not all about offensive weapons of course.  Gille may in fact be more important, and ruthless, as a defender, and Fernandez was always a strong card on defense. Apropos ruthless, we also have Didier Dinart as a key component of the French defense, albeit with some signs of slowing down.  But behind them all is that guy Thierry Omeyer, who is unbeatable when he is at his best and pretty solid even when he is more human.  So for me, the issue for the next few years is if these relatively older defensive specialists will continue to hold up, and/or if France will be able to integrate new defenders in the same seamless way that they have integrated offensive specialists.  Even if the special French system for fostering new talents is remarkable or even unique, one might have some doubts.

I am surprised when I hear suggestions that the Danish silver medals were just a fluke or largely depended on strong crowd support.  These observers may not be aware that the Danish team was harder hit by injuries, both before and during the event, than really any other team and that, looking ahead, they are better placed than most other teams in terms of having young talents ready to step in.  Yes, like the French they have some older players who may not hang in there beyond 2012-13, but they have a ‘long bench’.  To my mind, what did them in was the fact that their pivot, Jesper Noeddesbo, was forced to play the whole event below normal capacity due to injuries, that Thomas Mogensen was unable to play and that, in the final, Gille’s cynical ‘knee to thigh’ on Kasper Soendergaard in the opening minutes, left the Danes with only one long-distance scorer, Mikkel Hansen.  This young players, incredibly enough dismissed by Barcelona not long ago, was superb but not as much of a threat as when having Soendergaard next to him.

For the spectators in Malmö, and for the world-wide TV and web audience, it is likely to have mattered the most that the finally brought together the two teams playing the most exciting style of handball.  Especially the quick movements of ball and feet, the fast pace, the strong shooting, the acrobatics or strong technique from many players, combined with spectacular goalkeeping, made for a really memorable final.  Even when the best teams make it to the final, the importance and emotions of the moment often prevent them from showing their best.  I have been to every World Championship and Olympic final for at least 20 years, and I cannot remember anything better. This is the kind of handball that shows our sport at its best.  Let us hope for a repeat in London in 2012 and in Spain in 2013!