Handball vs. football: part 2 – Champions League in Corruption: FIFA or IHF?

Mubarak and Blatter: unfortunate choices as role models for the IHF

My colleague John Ryan admits that he does not follow football very closely, so he may have missed much of the commotion leading up to the recent FIFA Election Congress, last year’s decision to award Russia and Qatar the rights to organize the 2018 and 2022 World Championships, and the last 30 years of constant accusations or rumors of rampant corruption.   So John is prepared to declare the IHF Champion of corruption and mismanagement.  I disagree:  FIFA is in a class by itself!  But our readers should feel free to weigh in with their opinions on this sordid comparison.

I have done my share of reporting about IHF power abuse and corruption, so I will only quickly remind about some of the stories here without repeating any details.  In 2008, the IHF President personally figured in a ‘less than flattering way’ in terms of personal involvement in the match fixing in the Asian qualifications for the Olympics.  Last year, media reported about a personal contract for the President to the tune of 600.000 Euro, in return for the awarding of the TV rights contract to Sportfive at the time.  Soon thereafter, persistent rumors were heard about illegitimate procedures regarding the awarding of the subsequent TV rights contract to UFA.  IOC President Rogge was reported to be less than pleased.

Then came the easy decision by the IHF Council to change the President’s status, from that of an elected official serving as a volunteer, to that of a full-time paid IHF employee at a salary in the order of US$ 500.000.  Neatly, this coincided with a proposal for the Council members to have their own remuneration quadrupled or more.  The two very competent office managers, the Head of Sports and the Head of Administration, were eased out and replaced by President himself and his long-time crony and compatriot as the persons running the IHF Office and supervising all activities.

First proposed for the postponed 2010 Congress and then again for the recent 2011 Congress, came a set of proposals for By-Law changes that would have legitimized a major power grab for the IHF and the President personally, at the expense of handball’s global stakeholders.  Fortunately, and almost surprisingly, there were enough alert Congress participants who saw through this attempt and managed to put a stop to it.  Virtually unchecked decision-making authority and control over the financial transactions would otherwise have been the result.  I understand John Ryan, if he feels that this list from just the last few years is ‘impressive’ enough to make the IHF a strong contender…

When looking at the record of FIFA one must backtrack a bit and provide some background.  Former President Havelange came into power in 1974, essentially through the ‘machinations’ of the then Adidas boss Horst Dassler, who was using his position in the world of sports business.  Dassler later also got his protégé Sepp Blatter into FIFA as the Secretary General.  Blatter soon began to cast his eyes on the presidency, and it became apparent that he had acquired the necessary ‘business acumen’ to achieve that promotion.  In the meantime, the sports marketing firm started by Dassler, ISL, had gained prominence, and it became a ‘helpful partner’ to FIFA, especially in the context of selling the TV rights for the World Cup.

Later on, in a major bankruptcy scandal and court case, it became clear that ISL, apart from getting commissions on contracts for TV and marketing rights, apparently had served as the middleman in the handling of bribes from deal makers around the world to senior FIFA officials to the tune of 140 million SwFrs.  While the IHF TV rights for a 4-year period of World Championships currently are in the order of US$ 80 million, the FIFA TV rights went from about US$1.2 billion in 2002 and 2006 to about 2.5 billion in 2010.  Other marketing rights were worth around US$ 1 billion.  So it is not surprising if the remunerations for a much larger group of FIFA executives dwarf those of the IHF Council members, and if the ‘expense accounts’ and outright bribes add up to rather astronomical amounts.  And of course, the President has an essentially unlimited account to spread around in continental and national federations for them to use for special projects…  But do not get the impression that the enormous revenue mainly goes to development in poor countries;  about half of the US$ 1.5 billion net profit from the 2010 World Cup was set aside for FIFA’s own administrative and operational expenses.  A nice state of affairs for an organization that Is legally recognized as a charity(!) and insists on total tax exemption wherever it organizes a World Cup.

Naturally, it is not surprising if virtually every member for a key position in FIFA is able to bring accusations against rivals and their supporters.  It is likely to be a hard job in FIFA circles to figure out who are the ones who do not have a skeleton in the closet.    And of course, the best chances of staying one step ahead in the FIFA power struggle is to make use of the various resources that come with the presidency and to hold on to that position. So the one person who seemed to be a plausible opponent in Blatter’s bid for re-election, Bin Hammam from Qatar, found himself being forced to withdraw and face a suspension at the last moment, following indications that money in support of his candidacy might been thrown around a bit too openly.  Remarkably, it also caused another notorious executive, Jack Warner from Concacaf to be caught up in the same affair, an amusing fate for someone always known as a Blatter crony.  There was then worldwide pressure for FIFA to postpone the election but, needless say, Blatter wanted none of that.  In a bizarre ‘press conference’ he dismissed any notion of a crisis.

In recent months, FIFA has also been plagued by suspicions and accusations that the Executive Committee’s voting last December regarding the hosting of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups may not have been above board.  Of course, some of the ‘dirt’ may have something to do with sore losers.  But the choice of Russia and Qatar as hosts will, almost by definition, bring up speculation that money or some other form of coercion may have played a role.  And several FIFA executives remain suspended after the discovery of clear evidence that bribes were solicited and/or received.  Some of those who lost out to Qatar in the bid for 2022 seem to feel some renewed hope, but it is difficult to prejudge if something as drastic as a new vote will be found to be justified.  At least it has caused a change for 2026 and onwards, in the sense that the entire FIFA congress will do the voting.

All in all, one could say that the amount of money involved in the legitimate and not so legitimate business transactions regarding FIFA are at a level almost beyond the imagination of the world of handball.  The complete cynicism surrounding the FIFA operations is also much more deep-rooted.  People shrug and talk about the ‘cost of doing business’.  Moreover, the big money, and the amount of PR and prestige involved in a football World Cup, inevitable bring in the really big names also in government circles.  Another major difference from the IHF situation, where the power abuse and soliciting of votes and favors is less overt and involves fewer people, is that in FIFA the corruption really seems to permeate the entire organization.  The IHF President does not conceal that the FIFA President is a close friend and role model, but I think he will have to admit to playing in a smaller league.

But the bottom line is that both organizations, each at their level, are affected by mismanagement and corruption to an extent that simply should not be tolerated.  So the question is what can be done.  FIFA’s Blatter perennially tries to convince the world, every time he has been re-elected, that FIFA will be able to get back on track on its own and through his leadership….  The latest gimmick for convincing people is to appoint a ‘solution committee’.  To lend credibility, Blatter seems to have in mind appointing Henry Kissinger, a known football fan, as the person in charge.  (After having once spent some time discussing handball rules with Kissinger at the Olympics, I know he also has a familiarity with handball, so perhaps he could do double duty…).

More seriously, I am more prepared to pick up on statement from IOC’s veteran and ‘truth sayer’ Richard Pound.  He commented in public last week that perhaps it would be time for the decent and dissatisfied football nations to withdraw from FIFA and establish an alternative.  As he noted, this has been done successfully before in other sports.  He really felt that the reputation of FIFA and of football as a sport was being damaged and that something needs to be done.  As is known, IOC does not interfere in such matters but expects the global family in each sport to clean up its own act.  And then it is up to IOC to recognize which is the entity that deserves to represent and manage the sport in an honest, democratic and effective manner.  Perhaps something to consider for those handball countries who really are the drivers, developers and revenue creators in our sport!


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!


After the IHF Congress: time to plan ahead, not to celebrate

Is IHF President Moustafa really polishing diamonds?

It might feel like the moment to celebrate, when the IHF President failed to gain approval for his attempt to legalize the autocracy he is so desperately seeking.  But I hope there will be reason to celebrate after the election Congress in 2013.  In the meantime, I simply want to thank those Congress delegates who realized how dangerous and inappropriate most of the By Law proposals were, and then had the good judgment and courage to vote against them.

The President, who undoubtedly had expected to be able to celebrate at this point, instead mumbled about “IHF still being in the middle of the road and having a long way to go”, a rather amazing statement from someone so supremely confident in his own views and methods”.  The IHF web site had previously reported his comments at the opening of the Congress: “handball is like a diamond, we only need to polish it to turn it into a brilliant”.  Well, he is in fact right in comparing our sport with a diamond, but regrettably he understands as little about doing the right things with handball as he appears to know about diamonds!

Turning a diamond into a brilliant is a long and difficult process that requires a true expert.  The process of blocking and faceting the stone can be compared with the need for setting goals and strategies for developing and managing world handball, something that the President has sadly failed to understand.  Instead we are running the risk that with his lack of skills he will be chopping the diamond into small pieces while taking his own cut.  And the marketing and selling of the jewel is also something best left for a real and honest expert.  After all, we are not dealing with cheap jewelry in a bazaar.

I have talked with several people who attended the Congress, and the chaos they describe actually makes it sound more like a bazaar.  The President, in his efforts to prioritize personal loyalty, is no longer surrounded by senior IHF employees and other persons who have the competence to manage a Congress, to run a Federation and, for example, to handle a complex document such as the By-Laws.  So the question is how long this state of affairs will be allowed to continue.  For how long will a well-paid and scared group of loyalists be able to resist the pressures of the decent and serious members of the handball family who are beginning to realize that it has gone too far, down the wrong road!?

It is not enough to protest and resist.  As has been seen on the political scene in a number of countries in recent months, it is important that better suited leaders are prepared to step forward, ready to take on important responsibilities and able to lead strongly in a better direction.  Two years, until the next election Congress, may seem like a long time.  But the moment to begin the planning and collaborating is now!

And it is equally important to ensure that the ways of the President are carefully scrutinized in the meantime.  The tendency to act as if the inappropriate By-Laws were already in place had clearly been noticed.  And it is difficult to believe that these tendencies will disappear unless they are checked and stopped.  But by whom!?  Well, most of the income of the IHF is generated, directly or indirectly, by a relatively limited number of countries, federations, leagues, clubs and players, who surely do not want the results of their efforts and talents squandered, instead of being put to use for global handball development in a systematic, efficient and fair manner.

P.S.  If you wonder about the choice of image above this article:  well, apart from the link to diamonds, it is all a question of percentages.   Like getting a sufficient share of the votes to defeat By-Law proposals and getting enough to win an election; but it is also a question of where does the revenue go:  to genuine development efforts, to effective promotion of handball, or into compensation for a select group of officials!?


IHF Congress rejected President’s attempt to legalize autocracy

Proposed autocratic by-laws are rejected by the IHF Congress


A few days ago, I attempted to provoke by asking if the Congress participants would turn out to be ‘yes men’, ready to accept the shenanigans of the President, or if there would be enough people ready to stand up and resist.  I am now pleased to report that my expectations were too pessimistic.  There were enough delegates with good judgment and courage, so the proposals for By-Law changes were essentially rejected on those points were the effect would have been to centralize more power with the IHF at the expense of all other stakeholders and/or to give the President more personal power and authority.  These anti-democratic efforts were stopped.  As I had strongly emphasized on several occasions over the past year, this was a crucial issue for the well-being and the further development of our sport, so I must confess that I feel a good deal of personal satisfaction.

I will not get into a lot of detail, now that the proposals have been defeated.  But it is worth noting that the regulations that would have removed rights and instead placed constraints or requirements on continental/national federations, clubs/players, referees/coaches/officials and other stakeholder were dismissed.  Similarly, the Congress rejected the proposal to give the President a number of specfic new prerogatives (‘having political resonsibility for the Head Office, sole responsibility for implementation decisions taken by the Congress, Council and Executive Committee, controlling all financial transactions, handling the relations between all IHF stakeholders etc etc.).

While it is a relief that there are, after all, enough representatives from among our global handball family who are beginning to realize that the President’s inclinations and methods are simply going too far, this does not mean that one can now begin to relax.  On the contrary, this must be seen as just the first step in a broader and stronger effort to get the IHF back on the right track again, in a sound and democratic spirit, for the sake of the optimal development and success of handball.  I will come back to this theme in a separate article next week.


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!


Uprisings and protests ‘everywhere’ else, but not in the IHF

Following my article a few days ago about the serious problems in the proposed IHF By-Laws, which are being placed in front of the IHF Congress delegates this coming week, I have received several questions along the lines:  but how can it be that such terrible proposals seem likely to be accepted by the Congress?  And similarly, how can it be that there is an increasingly lack of patience and acceptance for the Mubaraks of this world, and yet someone acting in the same autocratic and outdated manner continues to be tolerated as a head of an international federation?

There are several explanations, mostly variations on the same theme:  it is possible for an organization to be democratic on paper but autocratic in reality.  Especially, if a large proportion of those who are entitled to vote are far removed from the inner circles and systematically kept uninformed about how the organization is managed and what it is NOT achieving.  Those voters can then be made to think that there is no need for change!

It has to be recognized that, outside Europe, handball is largely a new and rather unknown sport, being developed locally by people who have limited understanding for the history and the potential of handball, and also generally have a modest understanding of sports politics and international affairs.  Only about a dozen of the more than 110 non-European member federations could be seen as strong and well-developed by global standards.  Their representatives do not know more about the IHF rulers than they see in very limited media reports or by attending IHF congresses.  Moreover, as they have their travel to the Congress paid or subsidized by the IHF, this also encourages a sense of loyalty or obligation.

It would not have to be like this.  The IHF has continental federations, which are potentially in a position to have a very positive influence on their respective member countries.  But instead of educating and integrating their voting members, ensuring an unbiased understanding  of the issues that are being voted on, these continental entities and their elected bosses tend to act just as autocratically as the IHF regime, controlling and further isolating the individual members.  They have enough clout to be able to direct the votes of huge blocks of votes from their continents, on the basis of the false assumption that they act in everyone’s best interest.

But the problem is that often these continental ‘middle men’ are acting or directing more on the basis of their personal interests than for the benefit of the individual member countries.  While part of this tendency could be ascribed to human nature, it is exacerbated by the need for these continental bosses to stay on the good side of the IHF regime.  Their positions are very well remunerated, in fact quite excessively so, and there many advantages inherent in remaining appointed to these positions, such as comfortable attendance at major events, a modest workload and quite a bit of prestige.  In short, they cannot really ‘afford’ to lose their positions, so they are under considerable pressure to bring in the votes.

It is also worth pointing out that the continent of Europe is not without blame in this discussion.  A few days ago, I mentioned about the ‘realistic’ but very cynical decision of the European Handball Federation to refrain from opposing By-Law proposals which they fully recognize are very bad for the world of handball.  Similarly, some of the stronger member nations in Europe, whose traditions and knowledge of international handball easily enable them to distinguish between right and wrong, meekly stay on the side line, or even support the IHF regime, for selfish reasons or for fear of retribution.

In summary, it should not be surprising that conspicuously bad proposals can find support, even if they require the votes of a majority among some 160 countries.


IHF By-Law proposals based on autocracy and ‘top down’ approach being pushed through

About a year ago, I wrote several articles taking issue with the overall trend and many specific provisions in the IHF By-Law proposals that had been developed for approval at a Congress that in the end had to be cancelled due to the ash cloud that the ‘Viking Gods’ spread over much of Europe.  When the IHF is now making a second attempt in Morocco next week, it is disturbing to see that neither the IHF regime, nor those who opposed the proposals a year ago, have seen fit to cause some of the most obvious improvements to be made.

Last year, there was a major battle between the IHF and EHF over both principles and details.   Representatives of many member countries chimed in.  There was some sense that perhaps the IHF would back off.  But at this time it is clear that, after one specific concession regarding the rights to qualification events for World Championships and Olympic games, the EHF has indicated a readiness to ‘swallow’ the rest without a fight.  I am prepared to conclude that this must be a tactical move, where the EHF recognizes the reality that they do not have the votes in the IHF Congress or the IHF Council and cannot do much more to influence other voters.  In those circumstances, a continued battle might have negative repercussions.

This turnaround has caused an angry mood in a number of national federations in Europe, but there is not likely to be sufficient momentum for successful action.  Moreover, the reality is that in many other federations voting at the Congress, there is very limited information about the relevant issues.  So personally, I am also inclined to be pessimistic at this stage, but I will nevertheless provide below an overview of the major concerns with the IHF proposals.  In doing so, I will focus more on principles and trends than on details.

But first I want to note the problem that the IHF has jumped into a focus on By-Laws, which is essentially a set of regulations regarding structure, decision-making processes and distribution of power, without bothering to focus on what appropriately should first be done.  During my 32 years in the IHF, I kept wishing that there would emerge a widespread realization that an organization like the IHF desperately needs to have strong and clear goals and objectives, from which flow the strategies and methods by which the IHF would then pursue its goals.  (Of course, such goals and strategies would thereafter be reviewed and updated on a regular basis). But such an exercise has never taken place.  And it is indeed inappropriate to undertake a major effort to revise structures and processes in a vacuum, without knowing clearly what goals and strategies they are supposed to support.

One illustration of this problem is that the IHF’s main group of working-level entities, the Commissions, has essentially been left untouched in the By-Law Proposals.  Here it is proposed that the ‘one size fits all’ approach will be maintained, despite the major differences in functions and tasks.  Some have minor ‘backroom’ functions, while others have major operational responsibilities and even personnel management functions which are fundamental to IHF events.  But their roles and their size/staffing have not even been considered, in part because of the missing focus on tangible objectives and strategies.

Instead, the main focus of the proposed changes is on a totally outdated and inappropriate trend of shifting power from all other stakeholders to the IHF. The IHF has always used a ‘top down’ style, but now there is a strengthening of this undemocratic approach, with a focus on the rights and privileges of the IHF and the duties and obligations of the continental and national federations.  This is supplemented by admonitions that these federations and other stakeholders, such as coaches, referees, officials, players and staff must be ‘respectful and cooperative’, above all complying with IHF regulations and decisions.  But there is essentially nothing said about what the IHF undertakes to do for the other stakeholders, except the decision-making of course…

One particular concern is the role of the Council.   Ideally this should be a key decision-making body on a continuous basis, both on general policy issues and on major financial issues.  Of course it should also have a major role in developing goals and strategies.  But the proposal is for the Council to continue to have a rather vague or obscure role, at the mercy of the President and totally overshadowed by him and the Executive Committee.  Moreover, the Executive Committee should really be the Council’s executive arm, answerable to the Council.  But instead it is becoming more and more independent from the Council, acting mainly under the President’s personal supervision.

Within the overall trend of consolidating more influence and decision-making authority inside the IHF, there is also a move towards more personal power and autonomy for the President.  Much of this has already been going on outside the By-Laws, but now it is being explicitly authorized. This would in any circumstances be undesirable and contrary to the best interests of any international organization that wants to reflect modern management principles and the increased degree of participation that is being sought around the world.  But it is particularly inappropriate and dangerous at a time when the President has recently become a full-time official, constantly involved in all activities at Headquarters, and when the manager at headquarters is a long-time subordinate of the President.  Moreover, it is being proposed that the Secretary General position be eliminated, and although the Treasurer position is retained, the control over all financial transactions is now explicitly proposed to be moved to the President personally.  In other words, all ‘checks and balances’ are being completely eliminated.

Accordingly, all participants at the upcoming Congress are urged to vote against the proposals and to argue strongly among their colleagues for a united front against autocracy and centralization!


IHF By-Law Proposals: Important changes seem to be emerging

Almost a year ago, I wrote several articles severely criticizing the then emerging proposals for changes in the IHF By-Laws.  These changes were planned to be discussed and adopted at the IHF Congress in Rome last April, but this Congress had to be postponed due to the ash cloud spreading over Europe.  Instead, the proposals will now be put forward at an IHF Congress in Marrakech in the first week of May this year.

My main points of criticism (see article dated April 11, 2010) were:  (1) ‘indications of a heavy-handed shift of power in favor of the IHF, at the expense of all other levels and members in the international handball family’, and (2) ‘a major expansion of the personal power of the President’.  As I noted, ‘this would run counter to all sound and modern principles for the management and decision-making in an international sports organization or, for that matter, in any democratic institution’. 

I am pleased to convey to our readers that it now seems that important changes are being put forward on precisely the two main points above.   Much of the debate a year ago was between EHF representatives and the IHF, and it now appears that it may be a quiet resumption of that dialog which has led to a positive break-through.   From several sources I am getting the information that, although there is no revised version of the overall proposals available at this time, there is indeed an IHF Council decision to adopt key modifications.

It appears that an elimination of the excesses in terms of ‘a power grab’ has been undertaken, and that the intended shift of authority from continents to the IHF regarding responsibility for certain key events has been stopped.   More specifically, this involves the long-standing dispute regarding the responsibility for organizing qualification events to World Championships and Olympic Games.  This is not just a matter of principle and prestige, but potentially also a huge financial issue, involving the revenues from such events.

While there are several other aspects of the initial proposals for new By-Laws that preferably should be changed, this presumably means that key continental representatives in the IHF are now more satisfied with the revised version at least regarding the relations between the IHF and its stakeholders and regarding the personal powers of the President.  The latter had become even more of an issue after the President convinced the IHF Council to convert his role from that of an elected volunteer to a full-time employee.

It may be premature to celebrate, but at least this movement away from what appeared to be hardened positions must be seen as a small triumph, not just for the people directly involved but for the entire international handball family.   While I am eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to read the revised version of the proposals, I want to congratulate those who worked hard to create a positive momentum.  I am also pleased that the IHF President was able to find a way of moving towards a compromise.

THN (21 Mar 2010): President Moustafa’s proposals for new IHF Statutes would legitimize his dictatorship and despotism — who will stop this madness??

THN (11 Apr 2010): Changes in IHF By-Laws/Statutes: What is the issue?:


Do we really need more speed in the game at the top level?

There have been suggestions, including from the IHF President, that changes in rules and attitudes would be needed to speed up the game and to create more excitement.  Apart from focusing on this aspect when I watched the games in Sweden, I took the opportunity to ask some players, coaches, journalists and TV producers.

I have rarely heard such unanimous opinions on any technical topic in handball.  Many very surprised at the question.  They felt the issue at this time is that the emphasis on pure speed and quick action may have gone too far.  For instance, they noted that there are now many more fast counterattacks than just 10-20 years ago.  And the rules changes that allow for a throw-off, after a goal, to be taken more quickly have really been effective.  There is now a lot of pressure on the team that scored to get back on defense, and the mere “threat” of a rapid restart creates a bit of drama.  Similarly, only in some tactical situations are there any delays caused by substitutions.  Teams are now used to (and forced to) handling it very efficiently.

So from the standpoint of coaches and players, the main argument was instead that a further emphasis on speed would have a negative effect on ball handling and technical skills.  It would simply be impossible for players to maintain the same control as they have now.  And the view was that the game is nicer to play and to watch with this degree of control.  There was also a sense that the fitness of the players is generally as strong as it can reasonably get.  A further push for speed would cause a change in physical preparation and training methods that would be not just undesirable but in fact unrealistic.  It was also noted that the risk for injuries will probably increase with higher speed and constant action.  A loss of overview and body control would tend to cause more collisions with defenseless players.

I also chatted with some spectators.  Here the response was often that “we watch handball precisely because it has so much speed and action”.  Some compared with basketball which they found boring in this respect.  “We also need time to digest and celebrate what we see”, was another reaction.  The only negative remark involved excessive stoppages for real or “fake” injuries.  It was felt that some teams use this kind of tactics to slow the game down against a superior opponent.

The journalists I canvassed had roughly the same opinions as the ordinary spectators.  The separate category of TV commentators and producers had their own special concern.  They liked the speed of the game with counterattacks and quick ball movement.  But they felt that the restarts were often too immediate to allow them the necessary time for commentary or for slow motion repetitions.  So they would not be in favor of having a quicker turn-around in the game.  Instead, their focus tended to be at the overall concept of time-outs, but of course only at the top level where TV broadcasts are common.


2012 Olympic Qualification Update

We’ve updated the 2012 Olympic Qualification page to reflect the recent results of the Men’s 2011 World Championships.

By winning the title France has joined host, Great Britain, in qualifying for the Olympics in London next year.  Ten spots in the twelve nation tournament remain to be awarded.  Four spots will be awarded to the Continental Federations (Europe, Pan America, Asia and Africa) and 6 spots will be awarded via 3 IHF Qualification Tournaments.

The IHF has decided to use the same format that was used for 2008 Olympic Qualification.  Three round robin tournaments (with 4 nations participating) will be plaayed from 6-8 April, 2012.  The top 2 teams from each tournament will qualify for the Olympics.  Teams will be seeded in these tournaments based on the recently completed World Championship results and the results of upcoming Continental Qualification events.

The nations that placed 2nd through 7th (Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Croatia, Iceland and Hungary) have qualified for IHF Qualification Tournaments.  The World Championships also decided the rank order of the different Continental Federations.  Europe by virtue of France winning the title is ranked as the top Continent.  Pan America is second (Argentina, 12th Place), Asia is 3rd (South Korea, 13th Place) and Africa is 4th (Egypt, 14th Place).  The most significant ramification of the Continental ranking is that Pan America, by virtue of Argentina being the sole non-European team making the main round, picked up an extra qualification tourney spot.

The current seeding for these tournaments is as follows

Tournament 1:  Denmark (Host), Hungary, Europe (2nd), Africa (2nd)
Tournament 2:  Spain (Host), Iceland, Pan America (2nd), Europe (3rd)
Tournament 3:  Sweden (Host), Croatia, Asia (2nd), Pan America (3rd)

It’s fairly likely, however, that this seeding will be altered by the 2012 European Championships as Denmark, Spain or one of the other European teams that finished 2nd-7th at the World Championships will be strong candidates to earn the European Automatic Qualification bid.  This will then set off a cascading effect in terms of which teams will play where.  For instance, should Denmark earn the European bid the placement of teams would change as follows:

Tournament 1:  Spain (Host), Poland, Europe (2nd), Africa (2nd)
Tournament 2:  Sweden (Host), Hungary, Pan America (2nd), Europe (3rd)
Tournament 3:  Croatia (Host), Iceland, Asia (2nd), Pan America (3rd)

Commentary:  As I pointed out 4 years ago, I think most observers would probably consider this format flawed in that it’s fairly certain that the Continental Championship Qualifiers in Tournament 3 will be weaker opponents  than the qualifiers in Tournaments 1 and 2.  Tournament 1 will likely have Germany, Norway, or Serbia as Europe 2 and then either Tunisia or Egypt as Africa 2.  The teams in tournament 2 are likely to be Brazil/Argentina and Germany/Norway/Serbia again.  Contrast that to Tournament 3 where the likely opponents include Japan and Chile/Cuba.   You can pretty much ink in Croatia and Iceland as qualifying out of that tournament.  So, it’s pretty clear that a 3rd or 4th seed is better than a 1st or 2nd seed.  Granted, Spain and Sweden will still likely qualify, but why should they get punished for doing better at the World Championship?

There’s a number of ways that the IHF could have fixed this.  The simplest would probably be a draw for tournament seeding using 4 ranks of 3 teams each.  That would at least even out the likelihood of getting a 3rd European team in each tournament.  Another option would be to rank order the 6 teams that qualify via Continental Championships based on how well they performed at the last WC.  Regardless, it’s clear that the current system is flawed.  It’s probably too late to fix it now, but I guess maybe there’s a chance the IHF could get it right for 2016.