“A Parody and Wild West”: Handball World Championships 2021

By Sandrine Wyrich (@SunnyWyrich_)

The 27th edition of the Handball World Championships has reached its semi final stage ahead of concluding on Sunday.

A total of 32 teams have been competing in front of the spectacular backdrop of the Egyptian pyramids. But when reviewing the past two weeks, large parts of what should have been the greatest championships of all time verged on a farce with lax health precautions and several teams falling victim to Covid-19.

Despite huge criticism, the event went ahead in the midst of the pandemic. Dr Hassan Moustafa, president of the International Handball Federation, defends the decision:

“We could not postpone because we don’t know when we will stop this virus. Cancelling would have had a negative effect on the majority of our handball family because their main income is coming from handball.

“So we chose the difficult scenario to organise the event – for the players, coaches, officials, referees and handball family.”

With the Olympic/Paralympic Games and the Euros only months away, the Handball World Championships serve as a petri plate for hosting major competitions during the pandemic. IOC president Thomas Bach himself attended the showpiece to see how it could still be held successfully.

But already before throw-off, the pandemic cast its shadow on the event.

The Czech Republic and USA had to withdraw as too many of their players tested positive and no full squad could be sent to Egypt. They were subsequently replaced by North Macedonia and Switzerland – two days before the start of the tournament and without a period of self-isolation.

Debutants Cape Verde travelled to Gizeh despite a Covid outbreak in their training camp. More and more of their players tested positive and they eventually withdrew after just one game.

Japan’s head coach Dagur Sigurðsson (215 international caps as player for Iceland and formerly European Champion and Olympic Bronze Medallist as head coach of Germany) speaks about his team’s journey at the championships.

Contrary to health measures the organising committee had communicated, face masks were nowhere to be seen in the teams’ hotels and social distancing wasn’t maintained. Norwegian left-back Sander Sagosen referred to the situation as “a parody and wild west”.

Health expert Karl Lauterbach sees “worrying” gaps in the organisation and argues that “it’s the wrong type of tournament during these times.

“I understand that handball is struggling more financially than other sports, but I still don’t think it was the right decision.”

To the committee’s credit, they reacted and imposed tougher measures including daily testing and isolating the teams. However, the game with the virus remains a proverbial ride on a razor blade’s edge.

For players, competing internationally remains important, also during a pandemic. Poland’s right-back Arkadiusz Moryto says the championships are what they have been training for and appreciates the chance to partake:

“We have come to Egypt with high hopes and ambitions, we are happy to be here.”

Denmark’s goalkeeper Niklas Landin agrees that the pandemic doesn’t change the team’s mindset:

“The mentality of the players always targets winning the championships they take part in. Everything is good now, we just hope no more positive cases emerge and we remain in control of the situation until the last day.”

For supporters though, following the games behind closed doors is a mediocre experience. Life-long handball fan Clara Welsh says with no atmosphere in the arena, “it’s like you’re watching an upgraded training match.

“Watching the games is still nice, but it doesn’t have the feel of a world championship. Being engrossed in the match, sharing the vibe in the stadium – I’m very much missing that.”

Cancelling events across the board is not necessarily the be-all and end-all to dealing with the pandemic. If there is a professional and responsible concept, tournaments may go ahead.

For the Handball World Championships in Egypt that wasn’t the case. To stick with the petri plate analogy, the laboratory was already on fire when operators were trying to perform nuclear fusions.

And the bigger a bubble, the easier it bursts. If the Olympics/Paralympics and Euros are to go ahead this year, it will likely require everyone involved to be vaccinated or to arrive early with an extensive self-isolation period.

The Handball World Championships provided helpful pointers but certainly no blueprint for hosting major competitions during the pandemic.

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