The mighty fall
June 22, 2017
FEATURE – Former great handball nations such as Russia and Poland will not be represented at the European championship in Croatia, next January.
This is just one of the facts after the final round of qualification, which included several surprises, and makes us look forward to a Balkan party with no less than five teams from what used to be Yugoslavia.
By Peter Bruun
“Oh, those Russians!” sang Boney M in their 1970’s hit about the Russian monk and preacher Rasputin.
Rasputin suffered a sad destiny, and so did Russia´s national men’s team, when they hit rock bottom, failing to qualify for the European championship in Croatia.
It will be the first time in the history of the European championship, dating back to 1994, that Russia will not be represented, even though they had their destiny in their own hands, in their last match at home, against Montenegro.
A victory and Russia would have made the trip to Croatia instead of the Montenegro. For half an hour, this seemed to be no problem. Russia were leading 16:11 at the half in Moscow.
The second half also ended 16:11 – but this time in favor of visiting Montenegro. And the draw was all they needed.
Montenegro are ready for Croatia together with Sweden who had invited them back into the race for the remaining EURO ticket on the second to last match day.
Sweden, who had already qualified, surprisingly lost 28:24 in Niksic and opened the door for Montenegro to settle the score Moscow.
It has been a long time since Russia played a major role on the top level in international handball.
After the 2015 World Championship in Qatar – Russian did not even manage to proceed from their preliminary round – Oleg Kuleschow was succeeded as national coach by another national team player from better days – Dmitrij Torgovanov.
However, the former line player and Olympic gold medalist from 2000 was unable to rise Russian handball to former greatness, and the question remains if anyone can?
Poland´s downfall and Pascual´s disappointment
However, Russia is not the only great nation that will miss the action in Croatia’s arenas, in January.
To Poland – World Championship bronze medalists in 2015 and Olympic semi-finalists at the Rio Olympics last year – 2017 has been an “annus horribilis”, so far.
First an early exit from the 2017 World Championship in France back in January, followed by failed qualification for the European championship.
The reasons for Poland’s failure is partially explained by a national team without several key players because of injury or retirement and the fact that Talant Dujshebaev never became success as national coach.
Piotr Przybecki took over, and three points in the last two qualification matches together with some promising performances by several new and young players gives reason to hope for the future.
The month of June was not kind to Xavier Pascual.
Not only did the otherwise successful Spanish coach finish last with FC Barcelona at the FINAL4, in Cologne.
As national coach of Romania, he saw his team lose the steam, en route to a European championship.
Romania started the qualification tournament brilliantly and nearly everyone believed that the Romanians were finally heading back toward former greatness.
However, their performances in the spring and summer of 2017 were in stark contrast to their efforts last fall, and their last hope of going to Croatia vanished in Craiova on the June 15th, as the home game against Belarus was lost by a wide margin, 32:22.
Belarus qualified for Croatia, followed by Serbia.
Thrillers in Reykjavik and Skopje
Very fortunately, the matches of the last round in Group 4 all took place at exactly the same time.
Before the last match day, all four teams were in a position to qualify, and all four of them could end up empty-handed.
Iceland were receiving Ukraine, in Reykjavik, while Macedonia were taking on the Czech Republic in Skopje.
Both matches ended with decisive wins for the home teams.
Iceland defeated Ukraine 34:26 and in Boris Trajkovski hall, in Skopje, 7,000 spectators went mad following Macedonia´s 33:20 humiliation of the Czech Republic.
Still, the Czechs managed to follow Macedonia to the final round in Croatia, while Iceland joined as “best third-placed” nation.
Lithuania, who finished third in Group 7, also counted six points, just like Iceland, but Iceland’s 16 additional goals made the difference.
French arrogance or just getting the job done?
One-goal victories on the road against Belgium and Lithuania, a four-goal win at home against Belgium and a five-goal defeat in Norway – those were the main impressions left by World champions France in Group 7.
Yet, it was still enough to emerge as group winners ahead of Norway. France did play their last two qualification matches without the injured Karabatic brothers as well as without Thierry Omeyer and Daniel Narcisse, who no longer play for the national team.
Still, one might expect a bit more from “Les Experts”.
Was it French arrogance or simply a question of getting the job done without investing more physical resources than necessary?
Ahead of Denmark´s last two qualifiers against the Netherlands and Latvia the Danes needed at least one point to secure the trip to Croatia in 2018 and two, to make the group win perfect. Jacobsen had arranged for most of his stars an early summer holiday.
Mikkel Hansen, Kasper Søndergaard, Lasse Svan, Anders Eggert and the Toft Hansen brothers were all sent on vacation.
Still, Denmark had no trouble winning the two games and finishing on top of the least dramatic group in the qualification tournament.
Balkan party in the making
A true Balkan party awaits handball fans in January, as the qualifiers were particularly kind to the countries from former Yugoslavia. No less than five of them will be present at the European championship.
Aside from the Croatian hosts, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, Slovenia also made it, completing the quintet, coming in behind Germany’s “Bad Boys” in Group 5.
Seeding allows for interesting possibilities
On Friday evening, the draw in Zagreb will decide how the 16 teams will match up in the four preliminary groups.
In the meantime, the EHF has released the seeding pots, which look as follows:
Pot 1: Germany, Spain, France and Croatia
Pot 2: Denmark, Belarus, Sweden, Macedonia
Pot 3: Norway, Serbia, Montenegro, Czech Republic
Pot 4: Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Iceland
It allows for all kinds of interesting group combinations. How about a group consisting of France, Denmark, Norway and Iceland? Or another one including Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia?