Handball is already living the dream of Gianni Infantino

An endless world championship
Handball is already living the dream of Gianni Infantino

By Till Erdenberger, Katowice

The World Handball Championship is a mega event: 112 matches are played in just over two weeks. It’s about money and making new friends and powerful allies. Since the world association is like greedy FIFA.

Do you remember the FIFA World Cup in Qatar? Argentina became world champions on December 18 last year after an exhilarating final, the best in the history of World Cup finals. The German team was eliminated in the preliminary round with shame and disgrace. When Lionel Messi was crowned king of the footballing world, the German stars had already been on vacation for two weeks.

It’s unimaginable in handball: no one is eliminated, no one comes in early. Because 24 teams advance to the main round after the preliminary round, the eight teams that did not make it through to the President’s Cup. It’s a kind of consolation round in which all the little ones in the world of handball come together and face the best of the others.

In Poland and Sweden, a world championship with 32 teams will take place for the second time, compared to 24 teams before. The 2021 format celebrated its premiere in Egypt – the homeland of powerful world association president Hassan Moustafa. Since then, 32 placements have been made in an incredible 112 matches. Four days before the new world champion is crowned, it is clear who will come last.

“Not always purely European”

Handball is historically a European sport, the continent has provided all the previous world champions. And probably also those to come. Only once has a non-European team reached the final: Qatar in 2015 at their home World Cup – with a team of European professionals who were lured with big money and made playable for Qatar thanks to the soft rules of the global association.

And that’s a problem: “If you want to be safe at the Olympics in the long term, handball must not remain a purely European affair forever,” says Bob Hanning, a longtime powerful official of the DHB, the largest world handball association. Moustafa knows this and the Egyptian also knows there is more money to be made as his sport becomes more global, which has always had to survive in the deep shadow of oversized football even in its main European market.

It is said that Moustafa, who is nicknamed the “Pharaoh” not only because of his origins, runs his association in the most autocratic way possible. The 78-year-old has survived numerous scandals unimpressed and is tasked with arranging major deals himself. For the period 2019 to 2025, the IHF has sold the rights to the World Championships and smaller tournaments to marketer Lagardère Sports for more than 160 million euros. This is the largest marketing contract ever concluded by the IHF. People also like to make money in handball.

Even if the sporting quality of the tournaments suffers: Sweden beat Uruguay 47:12 in the group stage, German left winger Rune Dahmke pointed out in an interview with ntv.de that in a World Cup world “it’s really good that you can find your way”. in the tournament with an opponent you definitely have the upper hand against.” No compliments for the mode. “There aren’t 32 teams that are good enough. There are too many differences between the good and the bad teams”, explained the Croatian Luka Cindric. According to the Norwegian star Sander Sagosen, it is good that many nations participate in the Handball World Cup. Cup authorized, but at the same time , the THW Kiel professional also warned against too many one-sided preliminary round matches.

“Better than if they had not participated”

But that’s just the necessary lobbying that the world handball association has prescribed. It’s about money and friends, sport wants to be a global sport and needs to be a global sport, with strong allies in the Middle East or in the huge sports market in the United States. In the United States, the Olympics will take place in 2028, by then the national team should gain international experience so that they can inspire their compatriots at home. Moustafa had already promised in 2018 “that the USA and their teams would receive a wild card in the 2025 and 2027 World Cup tournaments if they did not qualify”. In the current World Cup, the American boys celebrate their first victory in a handball world championship against Morocco – after 25 defeats before.

The 28:27 is enough to move on to the intermediate round. There are three defeats, and we will especially remember that the American professional Paul Skoruba would have bitten an opponent. But on the only victory, he secured three more games at the highest level. “I think it will draw some attention to very, very difficult America,” says Bob Hanning. “It certainly helps more than if you hadn’t participated at all.” Along with the Cape Verde Islands, there is a main round nation that was able to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 2021 thanks to the large number of participants – then had to leave again after a corona epidemic before the second match – against Germany, double world champion. It just wasn’t possible to order enough healthy players to get to Egypt in time.

Endless matches and a completely globalized sport in which even the smallest association still has a chance for a few minutes in the spotlight – it is FIFA’s dream that the world football association will come true from 2026: for the first time, there will even be 48 teams playing their world champion, so far 16 groups of three teams each are planned, the last one is eliminated. A gigantic program that can hardly be logistically managed by a single country: 2026 will be played in Canada, the USA and Mexico.

The increase brings FIFA several billion

The increase was ordered to FIFA in early 2017, shortly before the IHF. The big European federations don’t like the idea much, but many of the smaller federations are extremely grateful to their great president for the prospect of being able to play a World Cup. Gratitude expressed in the votes during Infantino’s election as FIFA President in 2016.

They don’t have to worry about their Olympic status in football, it doesn’t matter in the multi-billion dollar business. Unlike handball and all the many small and micro associations, football does not need the Olympic stage. FIFA likes to earn money for it. For the World Cup in Qatar, revenues of seven billion dollars are expected, for the next tournament, the world association has been promised a profit of eleven billion dollars in 2018 by the organizers of Canada, the United States States and Mexico. More games means more money. If we stick to the mode with groups of four – as now put into play by Infantino – the number of games would increase from 80 to 104. Even more money.

Handball players can only dream of such sums. 600 people watch in the Orlen Arena in Plock as Chile beat Saudi Arabia in the President’s Cup. But it’s also about giving old and new friends outside of Europe a sense of being part of the world of handball. And in the end, the penultimate team will have won at least one game.

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