By Kevin Domas
In 2012, three of Europe’s top national handball federations (France, Denmark and Norway) joined forces to create a competition that would optimize income, thanks to TV rights. The idea looked good – in the beginning. It made sure of three great handball nations playing against each other three times per season, excited TV broadcasters would pay up and broadcast the games while fans would fill up bigger arenas. Because, on paper it all made sense – France playing against Norway or Denmark instead of Macedonia or Argentina – no pun intended – it all appeared to be a bit more appealing?!
It certainly was, for a time – with the exception of some complaining journalists who wanted to go somewhere other than Norway at the beginning of November – everybody was happy. Teams were assured of competing against tough and motivated opponents and the federations’ financials benefitted as well. Actually, not too much, especially in France, but let’s not pay attention to details. Other handball nations took advantage, doing everything in their power to be the invited guest in one of the three annual tournaments. Egypt, for instance, were all too happy preparing for the next African Championship playing against the reigning Olympic Champion, the 2017 World Champion and the World championship finalist last week.
But, this time, in France, you saw a lot of people frowning at the outset of the competition, although no one would officially complain. “Do we really have to play Norway for the sixth time in a year?” Keep in mind that France will face them again within a week at the European Championship.
“We joked about it together with Magnus Rød the other day, counting how many times we played against each other lately”, smiled Kentin Mahé, ahead of the game last Thursday.
“That’s how things are and we can’t say anything. We are stuck between two feelings. The first one is that the Golden League gives us the ability to test ourselves on a regular basis against some of the very best in the world of handball. The second one is that seeing some other faces might be fun, too.” It looks like Golden League already suffers from the same problem as the new Champions League format – handball will do anything for TV money and not think through the consequences. French players were quite vocal about it before flying to Denmark in October – playing three games in four days in the middle of an intense season schedule was silly. Still, they had to do it.
On the court, France on the men’s side and Norway’s women, in particular, have paid the price for taking part in the Golden League. Once on top of the world, France have awarded an opportunity to the Norwegians, especially, to gain confidence by beating them. A while ago, Kristian Björnsen, for instance, would have been shaking at the thought of facing Nikola Karabatic & Co. in a crucial game at the EURO’18, in Croatia. Now, he and his teammates go out with the knowledge that they’ve already beaten France a couple of times at Golden League, so why not do it again? And the same happens on the women’s side – France has been catching up with the Scandinavian handball powerhouse. Off the record, some of the French players openly admit, that in the meantime they know how to beat Stine Oftedal et al. after having played them three times last season.
Even Christian Berge’s explanation came across a bit awkward last week, when the two teams faced each other in Rouen. He tried his best when announcing that Sander Sagosen was feeling ill and wouldn’t play against France. He didn’t see the court, Norway lost but nobody learnt anything from the confrontation.
“I don’t think anyone showed anything in this game. Nobody’s learnt anything and the match at EURO’18 will be completely different”, said French coach Didier Dinart. Just for your information, Sagosen scored seven against Denmark two days later, after recovering from his illness.
If Golden League was intended to “help” the three federations and further promote the sport of handball, now it is time to re-think the tournament. Maybe the idea is still good, but some change is needed. What about splitting the format and include some other countries like Hungary, Sweden Spain or Island, just to name a few. I am sure they would be happy to sit around the table and discuss.
For now, Golden League has lost the luster it once had – instead it has turned into a meaningless circle of games for players and spectators alike.