The Handball World Championship being held in Egypt concludes on Sunday when a world champion is announced. As the 27th edition draws to a close and the number of competitors for the most prestigious trophy in the sport downsizes, the competition only heats up more.
On Sunday, the two teams remaining will battle it out for the precious Handball World Championship, the only major global sports event being held amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
So far, Egypt 2021 has been a success, especially in its organisation with participating teams, official delegations, media and visitors all singing the praises of Egypt’s ability to handle such a tournament and amid the pandemic, ensuring everyone is safe and healthy. The Egyptian Local Organising Committee (LOC) together with the International Handball Federation (IHF) have applied a ‘Bubble Concept’ where all involved in the event are isolated to avoid contracting the virus, be it officials, teams, media, volunteers, drivers and personnel. Since the arrival of the participants, strict precautionary measures have been applied in all competition venues, hotels, buses and cars.
But what is good for the participants and organisers is not so good for both handball lovers and the media. Two days before the 32-nation competition began, it was announced that no spectators or media would be allowed in the venues for health and safety reasons. Only a few journalists who joined the bubble concept were able to report on the event from the inside.
Fans and spectators in Egypt and the world had no option other than to watch the competition on television or follow streaming on social media from afar. The participating teams miss their fans too, miss the enthusiastic supporting vibe, the cheers, songs and shouts of oohs and ahhs.
The quarter-finals were scheduled to take place on Wednesday, after Al-Ahram Weekly had gone to press. The final of the President Cup and placement matches are also set for Wednesday.
After a tough journey in both the preliminary and main rounds, eight teams made it to the knock-out stage, where there are no more chances for make-ups if you lose. Only winners move on, while losers have to settle for a higher placement ranking.
Days 12 and 13 saw the teams who made it to the quarter-finals.
The final eight were the defending champions Denmark, hosts Egypt, Spain, Norway, France, Hungary, Sweden and Qatar. Six European teams, one African and an Asian.
According to the quarter-final draw, hosts Egypt found itself in a tough situation having to face the reigning world champions Denmark in match one.
Two matches are all-European clashes as Spain meets Norway in match two, while former champions France take on Hungary in match three. Match four would feature Sweden against the runner-up of the 2015 edition hosts Qatar.
In the first round, hosts Egypt beat Chile 35-29 and Macedonia 38-19, before finishing the round with the narrow 24-23 loss to top flight Sweden.
In the main round, Egypt defeated the Russian Handball Federation 28-23 and Belarus 35-26 and tied 25-25 with Slovenia to snatch a place among the top eight teams in the world.
Sweden topped Group IV after defeating the Russian Handball Federation 34-20, while Norway, the silver medallists at France 2017 and Germany/Denmark 2019 could have paid the price of losing against France in the preliminary round, despite winning their fifth game 35-33 against Iceland.
France, on the other hand, displayed their best performance to hand Portugal a devastating 32-23 defeat, and with that, sending them packing back home, since it was the second defeat for the Portuguese side.
The semi-finals will see the winners from matches one and two while the other semi-final would feature the winners of matches three and four. The semi-finals are scheduled for Thursday, whereas the play-off for the third and fourth places and the final are to take place on Sunday.
After the main round, Egypt became the first African, Arab and non-European team to reach the quarter-finals six times in the history of the World Championships, with 49 wins and six draws.
According to the IHF, Egypt 2021 has also seen a new dawn for one of the most successful teams in the history of European handball. Sweden has won both the IHF Men’s World Championship and the EHF EURO four times, but has started a major rebuilding project, keeping some of its core intact, yet adding new, exciting prospects.
In fact, from the 21 players in Glenn Solberg’s Egypt 2021 roster, only nine of them played at the EHF EURO 2020, co-hosted by Sweden. This meant that exciting young players like Oskar Sunnefeldt, Felix Claar or Lukas Sandell had the chance to represent Sweden at the highest level.
But neither of them have been lavished with praise more than centre back Alfred Jönsson, a 22-year-old player at German club TSV Hannover-Burgdorf, who is touted to be “the next big thing” in Swedish handball.
Several coaches have pinpointed Jönsson to have the most impact on the future of the national side, including Tomas Axner, Sweden’s women’s national team coach, who watched Jönsson develop at his former club, Lugi HF and labelled him as “The Chosen One”.
“There is no pressure. I am feeling nothing. I can only get on the court and play the best I can,” says the level-headed Swedish playmaker.
Sweden has had a plethora of transcendent superstars in its roster, including the famous “Bengan Boys” generation, who won everything that could have been won between 1998 and 2004, including the IHF Men’s World Championship in 1999, also hosted by Egypt.
The President Cup, which comprises eight teams who finished fourth in their preliminary round groups, was also scheduled to be played on Wednesday. The games would also determine placements from 25 to 32.
Austria qualified for the final of the President Cup after their 36-29 win against the Republic of Korea, and was scheduled to face Tunisia in the final on Wednesday. The match is also a play-off game for the 25/26 places.
Other placement matches will see the DR Congo taking on Chile at the New Capital City Hall in the play-off for the 27/28 places, while Angola faces Morocco for the play-off for the 29/30 places in a game that would take place at the Hassan Mustafa Indoor Sports Complex in 6 October. Due to the withdrawal of Cape Verde because of the coronavirus, the play-off match for the 31/32 places will not be played, with the Republic of Korea declared winner of the 31st place.
According to the IHF rules of the game, for the placement matches of the President’s Cup (25-32), in case of a draw at the end of the regular playing time, a direct 7 m shoot-out shall be used to determine a winner in accordance with Rule 2:2 of the Rules of the Game. For the other matches, overtime is played following a 5-minute break, if a match is tied at the end of the regular playing time. The overtime period consists of two (2) halves of five (5) minutes, with a 1-minute half-time break. If the match is again tied after the first overtime period, a second period is played after a 5-minute break. This overtime period also consists of two (2) halves of five (5) minutes, with a 1-minute half-time break. Should the match still not be decided after the second overtime period, the winner is determined through a 7 m shoot-out in accordance with Rule 2:2 of the Rules of the Game.
The Handball World Championship is being held from 13 to 31 January, in four venues and three cities: the Cairo Stadium Indoor Complex and the New Capital City Hall in Cairo, the Hassan Mustafa Indoor Sports Complex Hall in the 6th of October City and the Borg Al-Arab Hall in Alexandria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.