Do you remember the EHF Euro 1998 in Italy? Yes, in Italy. The tournament included just twelve teams back then, hosted by cities like Bolzano and Merano, where half of the people speak a strong German dialect, while the rest converse in Italian. South Tyrol is a region of contrasts, but no matter what this particular tournament feels like it happened a very, very long time ago.
Handball in Italy doesn’t mean much if anything, to be honest. The three national sports newspapers, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Il Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport, which issue daily, fill 90 percent of their pages with football. There’s some mentioning of motorsports or basketball, a bit volleyball as well. Even water polo seems to attract a bigger audience on the Apennine than handball.
It’s no secret that football is pushing most other sports aside these days, especially in Europe, Africa and South America. But that’s not the only reason why Italy doesn’t love handball. I talked to Anika Niederwieser in my podcast, recently. Her name is indicative of one of the main problems; she’s from the North, whereas in the South of the country handball is almost unknown.
It mostly has to do with the climate. While you need indoor facilities to do sports in the North of Italy – except for alpine sports – in the South you can play all kind of sports outside almost throughout the entire year. During my time in Rome it was possible to play 5-aside football on handball-like courts outdoors throughout the year, except for some very rainy days. I didn’t see any snowflakes in the “Eternal City”.
So it’s no surprise that the level of handball has hit such a low in the past. More recently the Italian federation, the FIGH, decided to put up a (female) team and recruited all kind of talents – a difficult task – to Rome to play competitive games outside of the country. Niederwieser told me that her team played in Slovenia, Hungary or friendly matches. The plan itself all sounds a bit crazy.
But the reasons are obvious – players wouldn’t improve otherwise. Niederwieser herself also played on the beach to stay fit and improve her skills. She was even voted “Best Defensive Player” at the 2014 World Championship, given the circumstances quite an accomplishment. Her steady improvement even caught the eye of German champion Thüringer HC and coach Herbert Mueller, where she signed this summer.
It’s great news that some of the talents have made it to the major leagues. On the downside, Rome has withdrawn its bid as a potential host city for the 2014 Olympic games, as far as I understood mayor Virginia Raggi. So, money from the national Olympic committee (CONI) won’t be available anymore to develop handball further.
We all know what it means if there’s no money around. In Italy it’s even worse because of the countries topography. For example, long road trips need to be paid for – the highest male league, the Serie A, consists of only three regional groups. As one of the consequences the quality of the weaker teams is exactly that – they are very weak. Not to mention the quality of referees. Attendance at any given match hardly reaches 500 people – on a good day.
In the attempt to make handball a truly global sport, Italy could become a key country. But let’s face it, there’s just no chance that football-crazy Italians will ever talk about Veszprem, Flensburg or Kielce on Monday morning rather than Juventus, Inter or Milan. Handball’s only chance to survive in a country like Italy lies between the mountains and beaches. And although there seems to be a lot of room for improvement, in actuality there’s none.