COVID – Russia – FINAL4
June 21, 2022
In hindsight it almost felt like a miracle – something from a time long begone – after having witnessed the energy and excitement of the two pinnacle events in club handball – the EHF Champions League FINAL4 tournaments, in Budapest and Cologne.
Two spectacular events ended the 2021/22 handball season which continued to be plagued by the vagaries of the ongoing pandemic and Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
by J. Schuetz
It’s history – the 13th edition of the Men’s EHF Champions League is in the books and FC Barcelona became the first back-to-back champions ever since the introduction of the FINAL4 format back in 2010. After 70 minutes of thrilling handball, the team of head coach, Carlos Ortega, enjoyed the better outcome in the penalty shootout that broke the tie between the Spanish record champions and Lomza Vive Kielce.
Fans have grown accustomed to witness a gripping finish of the season, at least those who attend the event in Cologne on a regular basis. From 2020 to 2021 it wasn’t possible, of course, as the COVID pandemic created havoc around the world. The previous two FINAL4 showdowns took place in the awkward silence of a near empty Lanxess arena.
Luckily, in the spring of 2022 it all changed much to the joy of everybody involved. The Corona pandemic somewhat lost its bite and hygiene restrictions were eased. As a consequence, players, team officials, and organizers were ecstatic to perform in front of a capacity crowd over the course of two days, once again.
Following a prolonged handball season, especially the players breathed a sigh of relief once it was all set and done.
“We would not lose this match – not with Gonzalo in goal”
In the catacombs of Cologne’s massive arena, Thiagus Petrus (FC Barcelona) summed up the crueling schedule of the 2021/22 season and Barcelona’s happy end.
“Now, it feels great – yes! It all started with the Olympic Games (in Tokyo ed.) and no vacation or time to relax and recover. But, at this moment it doesn’t matter.
“We felt great during the entire game and I feel we deserved the win in the end.
“When Alex (Dujshebaev ed.) missed his shot, I knew in my mind that we would not lose this match. Not with Gonzalo (Gonzalo Perez de Vargas ed.) in goal.”
The Omicron variant…
As players had to deal mostly with the physical demands during the Olympic cycle, the EHF had to react to a totally different set of challenges.
In January of this year, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the Corona virus all of a sudden threatened EURO 2022 in Hungary and Slovakia. Fortunately, the more contagious version of the virus did not prove to be as lethal and therefore did not lead to a cancellation of the competition.
Still, the European championship was anything but business as usual, as EHF President, Michael Wiederer acknowledged during an impromptu Q&A session, right before the bronze medal match at the FINAL4, in Cologne.
“One of the reasons why I continue to like this sport as EHF president is because of all the excitement that comes along with it. Unfortunately, sometimes the excitement includes having to deal with negative experiences and events.
“Two years ago after the European championship, in Stockholm, we all thought the world would belong to us. Back then, we had plenty of interesting matches, a good marketing situation and we had the most media interest ever. One month later, we were all sitting at home and had to deal with a completely new situation.
“We had to take some painful decisions and immediately cancelled games and later on some events (i.e. the 2020 Women’s EHF Champions League FINAL4 ed.), while postponing others until later in the year. Still, together with the clubs involved we were able to carry out around 97% of all matches.
“It was an extremely challenging period as every country had established different health- and hygiene regulations.
“The longer term effects of the Covid pandemic did not only have an impact on the players and the clubs, but fans as well. In the past it was somewhat easy to sell the tickets for next year’s FINAL4 event.
“This year (i.e. 2022 ed.) it was different and significant efforts were needed as we had only two months to sell out tickets. At the same time all the programs surrounding the event, in- and outside the arena had to be organized in a very short period of time. It was a real challenge to get it all done.
The Russian invasion
As if having to deal with the consequences of the pandemic wasn’t enough, shortly after EURO 2022, Russia decided to invade neighboring Ukraine and from one day to the next the EHF was confronted with a totally new and different set of circumstances.
Political and economic sanctions targeting Russia were put in place over night and Europe’s continental federation was affected as well. Mr. Wiederer did not mince words when explaining the situation at hand.
“Then we had to deal with the “Russia Case”. Here, I would like to stress that the federations and clubs from Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine are our partners, but they are also members of the world community and as such they have to bear the consequences of their actions as we (i.e the EHF) have to as well.
“We all have to live with the political decisions in a very, very complex situation. Yet, we continue to be in dialogue wit all three countries.
“Obviously, in the upcoming Champions League season we will miss the clubs from Russia and Belarus, and we will evaluate the situation of Zaporozhye (Ukraine) in the next two weeks.
“With regards to our sponsors (i.e. Nordstream 2 and DELO ed.), I am bit reluctant to make things look too easy. All these partnerships were developed through the handball network and not state driven initiatives.
“Losing them has two implications at the same time. On the one hand, it does have a financial impact, so we have to develop new marketing approaches and structures and on the other hand we are losing some good partners. So, yes – it does have a negative impact on our sport and it is our job and responsibility to compensate for it.
“The aforementioned sponsorship contracts are about to expire at the end of June of this year and our partners agreed to stop the placement of advertising once this entire situation arose. We had envisaged prolongations of these sponsoring agreements, but these clauses cannot be activated now.
Women’s handball on the rise
Two weeks before the men’s season-ending event in Cologne, the women’s Champions League concluded in Budapest’s brand new handball mecca, the MVM Dome. Vipers Kristiansand successfully defended their title against the team that used to dominate the event in the past – Gyor AUDI ETO KC.
In front of a record setting crowd of 15.400 spectators for the final match, Nora Mork & Co. showed their grit and kept the Hungarian record champions at bay.
As much credit the EHF deserves for their risk-taking and investment in building the women’s FINAL4, to a point when more spectators watched the final match between Kristiansand and Gyor than watched tennis legend, Rafael Nadal win the French Open on the same weekend, more work needs to be done on the national level as the EHF President points out.
“First, we have to urge members of the national federations as well club representatives to come up with ideas which creates the basis.
“Secondly, we have to strengthen the female component – this is a sport political measure.
“At the EHF we have created a master plan and we try to motivate our member federations to invest in women’s handball and execute according to this master plan on the national level. At the end of the day, it really is the responsibility of the member federations to make it happen.
“The cultures as well as the economic conditions in the various member federations also differ. The role of women in society is important as well. It’s not surprising that Norway and Denmark led the way and women’s handball developed in new ways in these countries over the past few decades.
More risk-taking necessary
“As I said, we can motivate and push our member federations, but ultimately we (i.e. EHF ed.) cannot decide for them. We are missing federations in this effort and therefore we do miss markets, simply put.
“The EHF has an interest to improve the quality of all competitions – men and women alike. I expect that the expansion of the European championship to 24 teams will also help, but it won’t be easy.
“We did see much success on the men’s side, when nations like the Netherlands and Portugal invested in the development of their teams – so I do hope that the national federations will invest more money in women’s handball as well.”