French handball superstar Nikola Karabatić
French handball superstar Nikola Karabatić.

Handball Worlds – the soap opera you’ve been missing (guest post)

The 2015 men’s handball Worlds begin today, in Qatar.

Brian Salmon will be in attendance for the business end of the event, and has supplied this guest post to give you the ultimate insight into the likely winners and losers.

I find this guest post to be most suitably read, in its entirety, in the voice of Des Lynam.

By Brian Salmon

Forget Dallas, Doha’s Oilman’s Ball applies soap to hand.

Dallas, Texas. The location has significance for many reasons; the place where an assassin’s bullet caused an entire nation to mourn the loss of a charismatic, youthful President. Fonder memories were created when coach Tom Landry led “America’s Team”, the Dallas Cowboys, to two Superbowl triumphs. However, for a generation of TV buffs in the 1980s, the word “Dallas” meant just one thing; from the moment that the opening credits presented sweeping shots of the Texan landscape accompanied by the stirring theme tune, viewers knew they were in for another hour of plotting, backstabbing and drama in their favourite glossy soap opera.

The series centred on the highly dysfunctional Ewing family, a bunch of cattle-owning oilmen who took more delight in scheming against their own flesh and blood, then once again causing the downfall of Cliff Barnes, their bitter business rival. Fans around the world could not get enough of the glamorous ladies, nor J.R. Ewing, the deliciously amoral baddie, nor the outrageous plot lines that strained all credibility; such as the time that J.R.’s younger brother Bobby was supposedly murdered only to make a miraculous reappearance in a subsequent season. Much of the intrigue centred on the lead-up to Dallas’ two glitzy social events of the year, the Cattleman’s Ball and the Oilman’s Ball.

A popular 80s TV show might seem an unlikely inspiration for the best way to plan for a major sporting championship, but that is the only explanation for the way that the hosts of the 2015 World Handball Championship have gone about organising the event.

They have assembled all the elements needed to create a reverential hommage to the cult soap; oil dealers, check. Bitter family squabbles, check. A hated central character with plenty of enemies, check. Betrayal, check. Unexpected departures of cast members who suddenly are reintroduced late into the production, check. All this off-court drama has occurred prior to the Qatar Men’s (Hand)Ball 2015. But now, it is time to enjoy the the latest and final edition of the ludicrous sporting soap opera, “Doha’s”.

The 2015 Championship is more significant than usual, for a number of reasons.

For the participating countries, the winner secures their berth for the 2016 Rio Olympics, whilst the top seven nations will get a further chance to confirm their presence at the Brazilian sports extravaganza. For oil-rich hosts Qatar, their Olympic ambitions lie in a different direction – after two rejections of their bids to host the Summer Games, they are desperate to secure the nomination at the third time of asking. To this end, they have lavished money on gleaming facilities, and succeeded in luring a string of top-class events to the Gulf desert state. Last year it was a successful World Championship in swimming. This year, the globe’s top handballers and amateur boxers will be coming to Qatar. In addition, the modern, shiny, capital of Doha will host the 2019 World Athletics. An ability to stage innovative, impressive tournaments will demonstrate to the individual federations that comprise the IOC – they hope – that the Olympic flame would be in safe hands if entrusted to Qatar’s care.

The Qataris must also be hoping that by staging these prestigious global gatherings, they can erase some of the reputational damage caused by the controversial acquisition of the 2022 soccer World Cup. Though FIFA is seemingly happy with the bidding process, many observers have been left to wonder how a minimally populated and climatically unsuitable desert state, with a shameful human rights record, managed to acquire the hosting rights to football’s biggest tournament.

A huge marketing drive, with courtside advertising boards at Velux EHF Champions’ League games, has been conducted to entice fans from handball’s European heartlands to attend the Championships. The revenue, raised from the highly subsidised tickets, will only be a fraction of the $318 million spent on building the 15,300 capacity Lusail Sports Arena that will host the final. Clearly, the calculation made by the organisers is that positive impressions and future influence are more precious commodities than money.

What has turned this year’s Championship into a soap opera? The first indication that things were not going to plan was when a number of the leading European nations, that could be expected to do well in Qatar, failed to make it through the qualifying process. Multiple medal-winning teams such as Iceland (2008 Olympic silver), Hungary (fourth at London 2012), Serbia (current European silver) plus Norway and Montenegro all managed to lose to lower-ranked teams during the brutal play-off round.

The biggest loss to the International Handball Federation (IHF) was Germany.

It was unthinkable that the nation that had done so much to develop and popularise the sport would not be present in Doha. This was the country that had introduced handball to the Berlin Olympics, albeit as an outdoor 11-a-side game played on a grass soccer pitch. Fans of Europe’s finest clubs make an annual pilgrimage to Cologne to witness the Final Four, the exciting climax to the Velux EHF Champions’ League.

A dramatic flourish by the IHF was the key to dealing with this predicament. Australia thought they had sealed their qualification by winning the Oceania tournament. However, just like the frequently double-crossed Cliff Barnes in Dallas, they were being set up as the fall guys. The IHF did a belated tally of the Oceania members, and were surprised to find that the number of countries fell below the minimum of ten that guaranteed an automatic qualification spot. Thus, they decided that Australia was no longer worthy of an invitation to Qatar, and their place would instead be allocated to a wildcard entry. Though Iceland and Serbia were higher placed in the rankings, the team that emerged Bobby Ewing-like from the shower to make a stunning reappearance, after having been written out of the script, was – of course – Germany!

The Germans are not the only team to gain an unexpected lifeline; two more nations were given wildcard entries following late withdrawals in the same week of both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In Dallas, the unscrupulous JR Ewing had so many enemies that the much-discussed plotline of “who shot JR?” produced any number of potential suspects. Qatar has also managed to alienate many of its fellow Arabic-speaking brethren. The Gulf countries declined to give reasons for their sudden departures but, earlier in 2014, both states had accused Doha officials of interference in their domestic affairs.

A fortnight later, the IHF refused to heed the pair’s desperate pleas to be re-admitted, instead decreeing that Iceland and Saudi Arabia should also receive the resurrection treatment. The selection of the fellow Saudi oil-producers was also controversial; by ranking it should have been the traditional Asian powerhouse of South Korea, but the IHF probably calculated they were more likely to lure fans from Qatar’s immediate neighbour to cross the border, and swell what could be very modest attendances.

Plenty of drama, then, in the build-up to the tournament. Will it be matched on-court when the Championship gets under way today?

In Group A, Spain will be seeking to defend their world crown, which they won on home soil two years ago. However, their economic woes contributed to the collapse of leading club Ciudad Real/Atletico Madrid, and led to star players such as Julen Aguinagalde and Alberto Entrerrios plying their trade outside Spain. The club’s demise also means that Barcelona are virtually guaranteed to be presented with the Spanish league title every year. The reduction in competitive matches leads me to conclude that they will return to Madrid clutching the bronze medals.

It is just as well that the Qatari embassy officials did not check too closely the applications made by players from Slovenia’s leading club, Celje Pivovarno Lisko. For the teetotal Gulf state might have not been so keen to issue visas, had they realised that the last two words in the team’s name refer to the most popular beer in the Adriatic country! Slovenia achieved a best-ever finish of fourth in Spain, but a repeat performance might be a step too far given the resurgence of 2013 flops France.

A trio of Bosnians plus another three from Montenegro, five North Africans, Cubans, a Spaniard and a Frenchman. This eclectic collection is not, as you might suppose, a reunion of UN delegates from a Balkan peace conference, but the backbone of the hosts’ team. To give themselves a better chance, Qatar has been granting passports to all and sundry. The most important acquisition to their side may be the Barcelona goalie Daniel Saric as, in handball, a dominant keeper is often the difference between victory and defeat. The team that in 2014 claimed the Asian title for the first time will be confident of going a long way in front of their own fans, though a top-eight finish looks the most likely outcome.

Another Barcelona star, Siarhei Rutenka, is the key to how far Belarus will progress. The talented left-back previously represented Slovenia, but his efforts may not be enough to help his second nation get out of the group. Brazil sprung a surprise in 2013 when their unheralded ladies became World Champions; the men, however, are unlikely to equal the achievement of their female counterparts. Getting to the knockout round contested by the last 16 is a credible ambition. Anything beyond this will give them confidence for the Rio Olympics.

In Group B, the team with the pedigree is Croatia. Their bronze medal performances in the 2013 World and 2012 European Championships were capped by silvers at the London 2012 Olympics. Their squad has plenty of big-match experience, with most of their players at established Champions League clubs. Their key performer is THW Kiel centre back Domagoj Duvnjak, who was named as the IHF World Player 2013. Expect to see the Croatians contesting one of the medal games, but it is quite an ask to get the better of Spain, France and Denmark, so they could return empty-handed.

There may not be many supporters of Macedonia who will make their way to Doha, but the decibel-creating fans will make their presence felt. Clad either in their bright red and yellow shirts or dressed up as national icon Alexander the Great, they will blow their trumpets and bang their drums with great fervour. They will have plenty to cheer as their other main hero, Barcelona’s right-back Kiril Lazarov, will again score a hatful of goals to propel them towards the knockout stages. The reunion of ex-Yugoslavan states is completed with the shock inclusion of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tall left-back Nikola Prce was instrumental in victories over Iceland which propelled the tiny Balkan state to a first-ever appearance at a major championship. Any victory or further progress in the competition would be cause for rejoicing on the streets of Sarajevo.

Tunisia could be the surprise package of the tournament. They picked up a bronze medal in the 2011 Junior World Championship, and that team has now matured and is ready to take on the world. The team was undefeated in a series of warm-up matches against top European opponents such as Russia. Left-back Wael Jallouz boasts an impressive CV having won league titles in Germany and Spain with THW Kiel and Barcelona respectively. The North Africans are likely to prove tricky opponents for whichever team faces them in the quarter-final.

In Group C, after recent events, France is in need of some good news – and the best handball team in the world are positioned to put a smile back on French faces.

Since 2001, the Olympic champions in both Beijing and London have amassed an incredible eight gold medals from major championships. The star-studded French squad features three former World Players of the Year in the majestic centre backs Nikola Karabatic, Daniel Narcisse and impregnable goalie Thierry Omeyer. If they perform to their capabilities, then La Marseillaise will again be sung with passion as they celebrate another triumph.

Sweden, by contrast, have endured a dismal decade; their silver medal at London 2012 represented the first time they had participated in a final since taking the runner-up spot at the 2001 World Championships. Their enthusiastic fans have a love-hate relationship with their team – they always feel that this will be the year everything comes good, only to be stalked once more by the crushing disappointment of failure. Sweden’s game plan is based on outstanding defence and hoping that players such as THW Kiel’s right winger Niklas Ekberg are able to score sufficent goals. The Scandinavians are capable of going all the way, but it is more likely that their campaign will end once more in tears before the silverware is handed out.

Iceland will be determined to make the most of their unexpected reprieve. Their silver from Beijing 2008 is the only time that a team from the volcanic island has ever stood on an Olympic podium. Their fans will create a terrific din with their plastic trumpets, and will cheer as Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson adds to his considerable tally of 1,600 international goals. Expect the supporters’ loyalty to be rewarded with a quarter-final appearance.

After an eight-year absence, the World Championship welcomes back the Czech Republic. Once a major force in the early years of the sport, their team will have to work hard to make it through to the knock-out stages. They demonstrated great team spirit in the qualifying play-off when they overturned an eight-goal deficit from the first leg in Serbia. Progress will depend on the form of talisman Filip Jicha, the 2010 World Player of the Year. Algeria will also believe that they can claim the fourth place in the group that would guarantee their admission to the next round. One year ago, the North Africans hosted their continental championship and prevailed over the Tunisians, so are not to be taken lightly. Egypt may be at home with the language and the climate they will encounter in Qatar, and at home watching on TV is where they will experience the latter stages of the tournament.

After the draw and political intrigues, Group D was always going to attract the “group of death” tag. The re-introduction of Germany made a tough group even more of a lottery. If you are a supporter of the England soccer team, then you will be able to understand how a German handball fan feels. Just like the English Premier League, the clubs in the Bundesliga can attract the best talent, the competitive games are exciting and German clubs regularly feature in the final stages of the Champions League. And yet when it comes to international competition, their fine dometic product does not translate to sporting success. 2007 was the last time that they stood on the podium as world champions, an eternity in a sport where major championships are conducted on a yearly basis. One senses that 2015 will be another year in which handball’s not coming home.

Russia, too, are another side in decline. From 1976 to 1992, the Soviet Union were Olympic champions in every Games they participated in (apart, ironically, from the Moscow Games when they finished as the runners-up). They prevailed too in Sydney 2000 but under the plain banner of Russia, rather than their USSR alter ego. Since that golden period, performances have tailed off and the aura of invincibility has long since disappeared. A thrashing by Qatar in a warm-up game has led to a downgrading of expectations; they should be quarter-finalists, but do not be surprised to see them bow out in the preceding round.

Poland on the other hand have reasons to be positive. Last year, Vive Targi Kielce became the first Polish team to reach the Final Four stage of the Champions League. Their leading goalscorer Karol Bielicki has reversed his retirement, following a nasty eye injury that looked to have ended his career. There will be plenty of joyful chants of Polska Polska, as the team clinch another top-eight finish.

Argentina are one of the better South American sides, capable of competing on an equal footing with the mid-ranking European teams. In a normal World Championship group they would expect to get the better of a couple of opponents, but not this time around. It will just be the single victory for them against Saudi Arabia – the worst team present at the Championships – who managed a modest seventh-place finish among a generally mediocre field at the 2014 Asian Games.

Lastly, from the mediocre to the sublime; there are few finer sights in modern handball then seeing Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen leap above the defenders to guide a powerful shot past a bemused goalkeeper. The Paris Saint Germain player is the main reason that the Danes have been contesting a final for four consecutive years. Extra time heartbreak against France in the 2011 World Championship was superseded the following year by joy at claiming the European gold. Two heavy defeats to Spain (2013) and France (2014) left fans wondering if their team can cope with big match pressure. The red shirted supporters will once again be out in force, and will be confident of reaching the final. Sadly for them, a fourth silver medal is on the cards.

For sure, the 2015 World Championships will be remembered for its off-court drama. But the only question on every fan’s lips is: “Who’s hot in Qatar?”

With thanks to Brian. Guest posts and terrible puns are, obviously, the views of the guest author and not necessarily those of their organisation, employer etc, nor this website.