Egypt will open the 27th Men’s Handball World Championship being held from 13-31 January with the participation of 32 teams, the most ever.
The teams will be competing in three venues in Cairo and one in Alexandria: Cairo Stadium Halls, the New Capital Hall that was especially built for hosting the event, Dr. Hassan Mustafa Hall in 6th of October that was renovated for the event, and Borg El-Arab Hall in Alexandria.
The championship’s Local Organising Committee (LOC) Consultant Medhat Al-Beltagi said that the world’s attention is now focused on Egypt “and that all eyes will be looking at us as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) observes our experience and follows in our footsteps with the Tokyo Olympic Games, so we have to set an example”.
Al-Beltagi added that the LOC had finalised preparations for the tournament and that Egypt is now ready for the event. He said IOC President Thomas Bach is expected to attend the finals of the championship.
“It’s a big challenge to organise such a big championship during the current difficult circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic,” Al-Beltagi said. “We are doing our best to deliver a successful World Championship.”
Japan was the first team to arrive in Cairo ahead of the tournament. Their arrival witnessed the applying of strict precautionary measures, starting from their landing to the team bus.
Japan, scheduled to play two friendly matches against hosts Egypt on 5 and 7 January, will play in Group C against Angola, Croatia and Qatar.
“The arrival of the Japanese team and applying the medical and precautionary measures of the championship was a successful trial in receiving the remaining participants,” Al-Beltagi said.
The Brazilian team will be the second to arrive in Egypt, on 8 January.
“Some participants had questions about the medical and precautionary measures and the bubble concept that will be applied during the event and we gave them the information needed.
“No country had agreed to meet such challenges of hosting 32 teams in a collective tournament so all the big federations are following Egypt 2021 to watch the Egyptian experience and how we will be successful in organising the World Championship. That is why Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has instructed the prime minister to remove obstacles in order to make the event a spectacular one that Egypt is up to and to be an example to be followed elsewhere,” added Al-Beltagi.
“The opening ceremony of the World Championship will be a splendid one as Tamer Hosni, the famous Egyptian singer will perform, in addition to staging a simple show,” Al-Beltagi said.
Deputy director of the championship Khaled Fathi said the LOC had invited Bach.
“Bach has confirmed his attendance of the World Championship to witness the medical and precautionary measures that will be applied during the tournament,” Fathi said.
Fathi said the Egyptian Ministry of Health, not the LOC, would be responsible for taking the decision of whether fans will attend. If so, capacity in any hall will not exceed 30 per cent.
“We had hoped attendance will be full capacity as this will reflect positively on our team’s performance, competing at home and in front of our fans, but the pandemic shattered our dreams,” Fathi said.
“I call on all Egyptian supporters to get behind the Egypt national team as well as supporting the team via social media platforms to raise the players’ enthusiasm and performance during the tournament,” Fathi added.
The Pharaohs will compete in Group G alongside top flight Sweden, the Czech Republic and Chile.
According to the head of the Accommodation and Logistics Commission Mamdouh Al-Shestawi, the LOC coordinated with the Medical Commission and the Ministry of Health to ensure that the highest level of anti-virus measures are taken. “The bubble system we are applying during the tournament ensures the best conditions of isolation and quarantine,” Al-Shestawi said.
It would be the 16th appearance for Egypt in the World Championship, and the second participation as hosts after the 1999 edition when the Pharaohs finished in seventh place.
Egypt’s best performance was a fourth place finish in 2001 during the team’s golden era, while they ranked eighth in 2019.
The Pharaohs kick off their campaign on 13 January at Cairo International Stadium against Chile.
The current generation of Egyptian players is a culmination of three exciting teams: the 2019 World Youth Championship winners, the bronze medal holders of the Junior World Handball Championship of the same year, as well as the remnants of the team that ranked eighth two years ago in the showpiece event in Germany and Denmark and who were winners of the 2020 African Handball Championship in Tunisia.
Coaching the Egyptian team is the former Champions League winner as both a player and coach, Roberto Garcia Parrondo.
“We had more than 10 positive Covid-19 cases in the team last month. This made training a lot harder but we had to get through because it was out of our hands. I’d like to thank my players for their efforts,” Parrondo, the 2019 best coach in the world, according to the International Handball Federation (IHF), said.
“We played four friendly matches against Bahrain which were the only games we had in the past 10 months. We had planned to play eight games since the start of December in the run up to the tournament. So far there are five and we have two games against Japan.”
With a gruelling tournament ahead, the Spaniard had a number of decisions to make, most notably, squad selection.
“Our squad comprises 35 players and since we began preparations in December we have worked with 27 of them. Every player has a chance to play and I will be picking the final squad based on performance in training and friendlies.
“Covid-19 has impacted our schedule. We had friendly games in March and there was to be the Olympics as well as six friendlies against big teams and another six competitive fixtures. We were not able to even train when everything went into lockdown. We could have been a lot better off if things had gone according to plan.
“We have six players playing with their clubs in Europe, which is good but the team is the most important thing. We need to get to a level where each player can give his best.”
In a group with three formidable sides, Parrondo prefers to go game-by-game as has always been his way.
“The opener against Chile is one against one of the most improved teams over the past few years.
“As national teams, European teams probably had little to no training but their players have been active at the highest level since September.
“We have to keep training and training and training; that is the only way to reach the best level possible.
“Our main objective is to compete in every match we play. In the previous version of the tournament Egypt did not manage to beat any European side, lost three or four games and drew one. If we managed to beat any of them then it is because we have grown as a team.
“Our dream is to reach the best possible place we can. If we do our best there is no stopping us and I will be extremely proud of the players.”
Because Egypt is the host nation, Parrondo spoke of how the new format makes challenging for the title difficult, with several European teams standing in the way in the various stages.
“We have to believe in ourselves to be able to go as far as we can. The players will gain experience with each passing game, and performance will get better as a result.
“Spain have done well in the most recent big tournaments. I think they will aim for a semi-final berth but there are also countries such as Denmark, Croatia, Norway, France and Slovenia eying the same goal.
“We trained at Cairo International Stadium, a great venue. Unfortunately we cannot have 17,000 fans in the stadium due to the pandemic and I feel awful for those who wanted to attend and drive the team forward.”
Parrondo sent a message to Egyptian fans firing them up: “All the players are excited ahead of the tournament because they’re playing at home. Because of Covid-19, they won’t be seeing a lot of you in matches but we would still love to thank you for your support. We are doing our best and will fight in every single minute. We didn’t have the best preparation and we might not have the support in the matches, but we will make Egyptians proud of their team.”
LOC Chairman and President of the Egyptian Handball Federation Hisham Nasr said the LOC was planning to run live rehearsals during the two friendly games between Egypt and Japan.
“The two friendly games will serve as rehearsals for the opening match between Egypt and Chile when Egypt 2021 starts on 13 January,” Nasr said.
“The LOC is working on trying everything in detail during those friendly matches. We don’t want to leave anything to chance or to circumstances.”
“We will go through the whole experience in detail, a live and real-time rehearsal of the opening match, including also the entrance and exit of fans, the organisation and the halls’ facilities,” explained Nasr.
Nasr also announced that the satellite channel ON TV had won the bid to broadcast the championship to the Middle East “so everyone will be able to watch the matches and cheer our national team”.
Head of the Volunteers Commission Sherif Abul Enin said 540 volunteers had been assigned to serve at the tournament and that each participating team will have two volunteers as team liaison officers (TLOs), a total of 64, in addition to 10 reserves.
Abul Enin said the Volunteers Commission was divided into two parts, the first involving TLOs and the second the other volunteers who were assigned to contribute to the other commissions of the tournament in marketing, media, medicine, accommodation, competition, transportation, hospitality and airport reception, security, the main tribune and spectators.
“For the first time, our volunteers can speak 12 languages. We have done our best to talk to the participants in their own mother tongue.
“The volunteers have been training for two and half months. Each one is now familiar with his or her role, especially the TLOs who know everything about the team they are assigned to.”
“Volunteer training sessions take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays on a weekly basis at the hosting venues. Our preparations are in their final phase, especially since we are to receive the Japanese team soon and they will meet the host Egypt in a friendly match.” Abul Enin said.
Youth and Sports Minister Ashraf Sobhi insisted that the participants’ health and safety were of utmost importance in light of the challenges the world is facing from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We will show the world what Egypt can do in hosting the world championship in such challenging conditions. We want to set precedents over how to manage an event of such a scale in coordination with relative entities in Egypt. The priority goes to securing the entrance and exit of fans in order to provide enough support for the Egyptian national team.”
“The whole world is waiting to see how things will go and how we will run the tournament in order to take the template and implement it elsewhere in other tournaments,” International Handball Federation President Hassan Mustafa said. “We highly value the efforts spent by the medical sector, and we want Egypt to set an example for all,” Mustafa, an Egyptian who has one of the venue halls in the tournament named after him, said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.