The qualification for 2014’s men’s championship in Denmark is still ongoing but for some countries the journey to 2016 in Poland is already at an end. Two of those countries are Great Britain and Ireland who both played their final matches in the process yesterday.
Ireland lost 36:12 in Belgium to finish bottom of the group that also features Estonia. Belgium must win by eight or more goals away in Estonia on Sunday to take the only qualifying spot in the group – any other result sees Estonia qualify for Stage 2. Like Ireland, Great Britain end with four losses but they can take some heart from turning around some very heavy defeats. Their first game (against Greece) saw them go down by 29 goals – this time out in Italy it was an 11 goal margin but was closer than that until very near the end. Steven Larsson top-scored in the match with 8 goals. Like Belgium, Italy now need to win away, this time by seven goals over Greece if they and not the Greeks are to progress.
Already through to the next stage are Finland who can use their last game, at home to Cyprus, to chillax and ponder the big guns waiting for them in stage 2.
The qualification process for the 2016 Men’s European Championship begins, remarkably, in 2012. The long march to Poland begins before the 2014 version of the championship has even been held. Qualification takes place over two phases and the first phase includes 9 countries spread over three groups. The winners of each group qualify for phase 2. For the rest, it’s BFH time.
Great Britain have been drawn with Italy and Greece. They will play Greece away on either 31 October or 1 November and Italy away 12/13 June 2013. Sandwiched in between they have two home games against the same opponents to be held on either 3/4 April and either 6/7 April. Venues, dates, prices etc to be determined.
This will be the second successive qualification run in which the British have played Greece and Italy: the 2014 Euro qualifiers were also held this year. In June in fact. In a three-match tournament in Italy Britain lost 35-30 to Greece and 29-26 to Italy. It was only the fourth team in the group, Switzerland, who actually progressed to phase 2 qualification.
The news that UK Sport will be committing the same £580m to the Rio games that it put into the performance programme for London is, of course, good news. The fear was that despite a haul that makes Beijing and every Olympic games since 1908 look like a bit of a flop that there would be no money to continue the push for glory: austerity would trump glory.
The other good news from London 2012 is of course that handball, given the chance to be put in front of the British public, was the break-out sport of the games. The Copper Box rocked. Journalists from the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian came, saw and left enrapt. Radio 1 DJs did the same. Despite GB not winning they competed hard and earned some rightful plaudits. When the finals came they weren’t shunted to the red button they were on the main channels. The finale to France’s gold medal performance against Sweden was introduced live on BBC 1 by Sue Barker. In the afterglow social media buzzed with new clubs, taster sessions, email enquiries taking hours to answer.
So many positives. From not existing when London was awarded the games to a team and a sport etched clearly in the public consciousness. From no British players anywhere to Holly Lam-Moores at Danish elite club Viborg, and others besides. The daydream has this as a foundation. All UK Sport need to do is cough up the dough to continue at any level. But, of course, it is far from being that simple.
UK Sport’s money is performance based. It is a carrot attached to a stick of toughest steel. Only medal prospects or sports capable of meeting performance targets keep their funding. The rest scrabble around until they can ask again. Handball had its funding slashed in 2009 but had the same performance targets kept in place. It will now be assessed against these and future Olympic medal potential.
The only way Great Britain, either men or women, will qualify for the 12-team 2016 games is if they host a qualifying tournament and don’t tell anybody else where it’s being held. There are minnows in handball that Great Britain could beat but there are so few spots open to qualifiers: the route for most is through continental and World championships. UK Sport will not be offering further support to handball if the sole target is a good performance in the next Olympic games.
But what is true for Rio need not be true forever. Handball has great potential to be the sport of choice for a significant number of people. It is an obvious choice for anybody looking at offering competitive sport to boys and girls. If you’re a rugby or football club looking to build stamina, strength and agility it’d be a great game to add on in training. Whether that creates enough of a base to build a competitive national side out of I doubt anyone could say, especially given that by an ironic accident of geography Britain are stuck in the European federation rather than, say, Oceania, and so will take beating after beating from established nations as they learn the game more fully.
So the challenge can’t and shouldn’t be to get back into the Olympics for 2016 and compete for a medal. If that remains UK Sport’s sole measure then we can expect big-up funding for rowing and athletics where medals rely on the brilliance of an individual or a small group rather than team sports that require a pool of thousands from which to draw the cream. The argument may be made that with seed funding now we can push for 2020. Eight years is a long time but the teenagers inspired now will be mature enough to compete on the world stage then. It would seem a realistic aim but unlikely to be significantly rewarded. Handball will need to draw even more heavily on Sport England, Awards for All and the handful of other participation-based funding ‘opportunities’ that may or may not exist once George Osborne’s austerity axe has swung.
There is hope though. The passion for the game amongst its volunteers, its clubs and its supporters is real and was already leading to massive leaps in participation before the Olympics. The people involved in leading the sport have – to this outsider at least – shown remarkable nous in the years since London was awarded the games. Perhaps naively I’m confident that we are not heading back to the darkness of the world before 2005. This next chapter for handball in Britain is going to be tough but it’s also going to be worth watching and, if you can, being part of.