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Men At Work

July 10, 2014

Following the recent communication of the International Handball Federation (IHF) to not recognize the Oceania Continent Handball Federation (OCHF) and by default withdrawing Australia’s participation at the 2015 World Cup in Qatar while at the same time awarding the vacant slot through a wild card to team Germany, emotions of players, coaches and handball fans around the world have been running high.  With no shortage of conspiracy theories the IHF finds itself at the center of controversy once again.

As officials in Germany breathe a sigh of relief after the dismal performance of the men’s national handball team in their qualification matches against Poland in June of this year, the reactions “Down Under” are distinctly different. Alex Gavrilovic, President of the Australian Handball Federation, explains how the events of the past days have evolved from his perspective and what he intends to do next.

Q:  Mr. Gavrilovic, how long have you been involved with the IHF and what has been your experience with the IHF so far?

A:  I have worked with the IHF since my appointment as the Competition Manager for the Handball event at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, in 1997. I was fortunate enough to also have that role for the London 2012 Olympic Games. I have been involved in Australian Handball since 1981, therefore I’ve had cause to deal with the IHF for many years. There have been many changes in the IHF during that time as well as changes to key personnel. I still count Raymond Hahn, Peter Muehlematter and Frank Birkefeld as friends. I was introduced to Dr Moustaffa during the Sydney 2000 Games and have formed friendship and working relationships with him as well as with Leon Kalin, Miguel Roca and Amal Khalifa, among others. I have always enjoyed my time dealing with the IHF, which has been generous and supportive of Australian Handball, to varying degrees, throughout that time. 

Q:  From your perspective – what has been the status of the Oceania Continent Handball Federation prior to being declared invalid by the IHF?

A:  The previous Oceania Handball Federation was disbanded and a new Federation, the Oceania Continent Handball Federation (OCHF), formed in 2008/9. When the IHF changed its statutes to require 15 member nations, in order to be recognized as a Continental Federation, there were only 6 members in Oceania. This meant that, from that time, the OCHF has not been ‘recognised’ by the IHF. Nevertheless, the IHF continued to make a spot available for the champion team from Oceania at its World Championships, Beach Handball and Superglobe.

Q:  When did you hear about the IHF decision and who informed you?

A:  The IHF alerted the Australian Handball Federation (AHF) about the planned reconsideration of the automatic Oceania place at World Championships about 2 months ago. We were invited to make comment and propose any points for consideration by the Council. We did make some representations to the IHF and focused mainly on development initiatives to assist Australia (and Oceania in general), however, we also made it clear that, for the Qatar 2015 event, any decision not to include Australia has come too late and should be deferred. Our opinion is that there must be a clear path available for teams from Oceania to attend World Championships, which at the moment is by direct qualification from Oceania.

Q:  What was the exact explanation from the IHF that you received?

A:  We have not yet received an ‘official’ explanation for the removal of the automatic place for an Oceania team, which, although technically the Continent is not recognised, has been made available to us for many years.

Q:  According to the IHF what were the reasons for their decision to withdraw the status of the Oceania Continent Handball Federation?

A:  We are waiting to be informed ‘officially’ of those reasons.

Q:  What was the first thought that went through your mind when you realized that Australia would be dropped from the WC’15?

A:  I did not think that it was a certainty that Australia would be dropped, hoping that the Council would agree that, for Qatar 2015, the decision to amend qualification was too late. I first became aware of the Council’s decision by reference to the IHF web site. Sadly, we have still not received notification from the IHF. My first thought was that the decision is not a good one: Australian players have already invested many years of effort to prepare for the Qatar event, paying most of their costs themselves. Our coach, Jan Ottosen from Denmark, has given up his job in the Faroe Islands and has spent lengthy time in Australia, with no pay, to dedicate himself to the preparation of the team. I felt that the decision was disrespectful to the efforts that our team has made so far.

Q:  Were you informed that Australia’s WC’15 spot would be allocated to Germany?

A:  No, this I learnt for the first time when I saw the IHF web site.

Q:  Did you ask why Germany and not any of the other countries that did not manage to qualify (i.e. Iceland, Norway, Hungary etc) would be awarded Australia’s spot in WC’15?

A:  No, this was never discussed and remains a matter for the IHF, not Australia.

Q:  Do you believe that you received a truthful explanation from the IHF regarding their decision?

A:  I will comment on this when I get their notification. For the moment, I have to accept that they have decided that Oceania should not have an automatic place as the continent is not recognised, although, this was, as I said earlier, not a barrier to our attendance in the past.

Q:  In your opinion, why did the IHF make this decision at this point in time?

A:  You need to ask the IHF this question. 

Q:  There are are a fair number of conspiracy theories debated in off-line media and various social networks on the internet with regards to the “true” reasons behind the IHF decision.  Do you feel that Handball Australia is the victim in a bigger commercial and/or political ploy?

A:  I do not think that it is useful to contemplate ‘conspiracy theories’. I will wait to be officially informed by the IHF about their reasons. 

Q:  The Australian Handball Federation as well as players must have incurred cost aside from time and effort – did the IHF offer any form of compensation to the Australian Handball Federation?

A:  I have already said something about the players’ and coach’s commitment and sacrifice, including their financial burden. No offers of compensation have been made or requested at this time.

Q:  When you informed the players of team Australia and the national coach of the IHF decision what were their reactions?

A:  Everybody here is disappointed at the news. It is every player’s dream to represent their country at the highest level. I can fully understand that they must feel devastated and let down by the decision to prevent them from realising that dream.

Q:  Bob Hanning (Vice-President of the German Handball Federation)  was quoted saying “being proud and happy” when he was informed of the decision by the IHF.  How do you comment this quote?

A:  I can completely understand that the German Handball Federation would be proud and happy to be given an opportunity to participate at a World Championship. This is a quite understandable reaction.

Q:  Have you been in contact with the German Handball Federation or vice versa after the IHF decision?

A:  No, I have no intention of talking to the German Handball Federation about a matter which is between Australia and the IHF.  The German Federation has similarly no reason to discuss the matter with Australia.

Q:  What are the next steps that you will take on behalf of the Australian Handball Federation regarding this matter?

A:  The Australian Handball Federation will continue its dialogue with the IHF to try to understand what the way forward is with regard to the status and development of Oceania, assistance and development in Australia, participation at future events, etc.

Q:  What are the consequences (short- and long term) of the IHF decision for handball in Australia and the Oceania Continent Handball Federation?

A:  That’s too early to say. There are currently two Australian teams preparing for the Beach Handball World Championship and our Sydney University team is preparing for the IHF Superglobe. Hopefully this decision has no impact on those teams but clearly we now have some uncertainty about our participation at all IHF events. It is likely that, if we have no direct qualification path to the World Championship, opportunities for sponsorship will be diminished. Clearly there is an immediate negative impact on our players, who must all be considering their future in the sport at the moment.

Q:  How do you feel Handball Australia and the Oceania Continent Handball Federation was treated by the IHF?

A:  I believe that Australia was encouraged to speak our mind, however, our arguments appear to have been ignored. I can not speak for OCHF. I am personally disappointed not to have had some official word from the IHF prior to their media announcement on the web page.

Q:  In September 2014, Sydney University will represent the Oceania Continent Handball Federation at the IHF Super Globe – the Club World Championship in Qatar.  Do you feel that following the IHF decision a club from the Oceania Continent Handball Federation / Australia should participate in this tournament?

A:  I think that it is too late to make any changes to any events in 2014/15 and that the team from Australia, which has just finished a tough tournament against teams from New Zealand and New Caledonia to qualify for the event deserves to go to Superglobe. The club and players have already made a huge commitment to get this far. It would be unfair and inappropriate to deprive them of their rightful place.

Following the interview Handball Australia made a further statement:

“Handball Australia has been overwhelmed by the number of supportive messages received since the IHF’s decision to refuse Australia its spot at the Qatar 2015 World Championship. We are grateful and appreciative of the good will and sympathy for our predicament, however, we do not want to see any negative messages about Germany or its handball team. Similarly, we do not support boycotts or suggestions of forfeits at the World Championships in Qatar. We love the sport of handball and wish that all handball events are successful and generate popularity for our great game, including that at Qatar. Please keep your messages coming, they are restoring our faith in the ‘handball family’. If you wish to assist us, whether that be at a personal, school, club or federation level, feel free to send messages “

J. Schutz

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