Author – Sergey Prigolovkin

Another, 4th, season is added to the presidential sports portfolio of Sergey Shishkarev, Head of the Handball Federation of Russia. It brought no astonishing successes, but it did bring us new steps forward, victorious feelings, legitimate joy and bitter misfire, successful attempts and educative mistakes – all of which sum up the undoubtful progress. All of this in curious discussion with the Head of HFR who’s always open to conversation.

— In order to not jump point blank on the results of the handball season, could you please tell us your general impression – what is the biggest joy and the bitterest regret of the past season? 

— There are two major reasons to be happy with the past season both relating to our girls. First is the performance of the national women’s team at the European Championship. The second is the game “Rostov-Don” showed during DELO WOMEN’S EHF FINAL4. Both presented us with silver with a hint of gold.

It was very hard to beat the French at the top tournament in the home match. I feel bad for Evgeny Trefilov. This height is not cleared yet, but I believe it is yet to come. The Rostov girls also demonstrated a dignified performance in Hungary.

I would like to add to this year’s success story the victory of U-19 team headed by Lubov Sidoricheva in the 2018 Women's Youth World Handball Championship. Outstanding performance in Poland. It is very important that almost the two thirds of the team squad were already organically integrated in top adult teams and we’ve seen their skills improvement over the season.

As for disappointment, it is certainly the performance of the men’s national team of the World Championship. The 14th place is definitely not what we had expected. The matches against the German and French teams had proven that our team could claim the 7th or 8th places and not to postpone the chances of getting in the Olympics Qualification till the European Championship.

— Were you able to increase the popularity of handball in Russia? Because after the Olympic Games-2016 the issue of handball development reached the level of top public officials.

— We have to make an adjustment because during several previous years the main state resources were directed for preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. One couldn’t call the development of handball active at that time.

We did do what was possible and we see the results. There are more people visiting matches of the national championship, matches of the national teams gather full houses at different regions of our country.

According to the objective data, the TV and internet broadcasts of some handball matches can compete in rating with football Champions League. It would be even better if we had more of the arenas like Rostov and Astrakhan where there are good conditions for production of high-quality marketing TV picture.

— Delo Group that you preside has entered the line of top sponsor brands in the European Handball Federation. What investment rationale you see in that? 

— There’s nothing to hide – two interests rolled into one. As Head of the Handball Federation of Russia I intend to promote the development of handball in Europe and in the world. In its turn this coincides with my business aspirations being President of Delo Group – group of companies that in 2018 concluded a largest in several years deal on transportation market. We became the co-owners of Global Ports – not Russian but European transport holding company.

Our sport plays an important part in this. When I present Delo Group to our partners or clients, starting off sport and particularly handball – it facilitates the objective. You give an amazing book on Rio-de-Janeiro triumph and people remember it, say how great it was and directly associate Delo Group with it.

The same goes for our stevedore holding DeloPorts in Novorossiysk. In this case the partners and clients of the Company are primarily foreigners.

Handball is very popular in many countries of our operations – Scandinavia, Netherlands, Germany and France are our potential target markets.

As you see in our case handball and business support each other. The sponsorship is practical both in terms of “Delo” brand promotion and in terms of strengthening the positions and authority of Russian handball – national teams and clubs like Rostov-Don.

— There is a substantial gap between the level of the game we witness in Budapest and Cologne in May and the Russian Championship. And we believe the gap only grows. What do you believe is the key solution to break this alarming trend?

— We have a difficult situation in the men’s handball. It cannot be improved without sharpened competition like the last knockdown-dragout fight in the Super League final between “Chekhovskiye Medvedi” and “Spartak”. For the first time “Chekhovskiye Medvedi” came to the season’s final not firmly holding the top leading position. But once again Vladimir Maksimov confirmed his high strategic and tactical power. But there should be more leaders, Neva should pull up and clubs of Krasnodar, Stavropol and Saratov.

In women’s handball the gap you’re talking about is not that big. The absolute grand of the European level Rostov-Don had a serious opponent – Lada. And the latter lost a match to Kuban on their way to the finals. That is what a sharpening competition is.

We know which direction we have to develop further – improving audience appeal, the performance on field and working with audience.

— Ambros Martin, Jan Leslie, Frederic Bugeant, Vlatko Djonovic – the coaching team of the Super League is getting more and more of the foreign coaches. Is it a reason for optimism or the rival jealousy of local top coaches has grounds?

— The answer is simple. Let each of our top coaches train at least once capable coach who will step in and continue on this path once they retire. Maybe then there won’t be a reason for confrontation. There’s no point to talk about something that should be just done.

Furthermore, I fully support the healthy competition. What’s the harm in the best European coaches and our top coaches side by side develop Russian handball? Before Rio Olympics Jan Leslie worked with Rostov-Don, now Ambros Martin has done a lot of work in this club, for the benefit of the national team as well.

Lately I don’t hear criticism of the foreign colleagues from Trefilov. I know that he respects the work they do.

— It is worth mentioning the deficit of Russian handball specialist that own international licenses and certificates. Is it because people are not susceptible to novelties and trends of the modern game?

— As far as I understand it is about professional compliance – in order to work properly they have to fulfill a range of demands. And we’re talking not only about training methodology but the issues of psychology and sport medicine. The Federation is working on the improvement of coaches’ qualification and on the quality of their education. This requires close supervision.

— Tell us how successful the progress accelerator “Spartak” with its mission is. We think that the second season showed no growth in terms of results and level of the game, as well as the social component of this project development. Plainly speaking, the same handful of fans they had in Kuntsevo just moved to Krylatskoye.

— We see that the number of fans increased. More of the fans came to Chekhov for the matches. We have to be aware that two seasons are not enough to radically change the situation in Moscow handball popularity. Objectively speaking emersion of such a competitor as “Spartak” didn’t activate the audience in Chekhov for example.

But you’re right. There was no significant breakthrough in the past season. At the end of the season one can name a handball of bright players – Aleksand Dereven, Inal Aflitulin, Illya Ryabov. It would be nice to have a flow in of young promising players.

— Now following in Spartak footsteps, a women’s club CSKA is created in Moscow. What is the main idea and purpose of the project?

— Firstly, it is the come-back of the big women’s handball to the capital. Regardless of what anyone says about Luch, I think it is far from what it should look like.

Here we’re talking about the strong professional and ambitious club. The idea is not solely mine; it is of the executives of the Ministry of Defence. The club will have strong sponsors and trustees. The “army” team as a rule has only one objective in the competitions – the first prize.

We cannot go on without a top club in the capital if we want to invite top international tournaments to Russia. With all due respect to Rostov and other beautiful regions of Russia, Moscow has more opportunities to attract foreign guests who want to combine visiting handball games with tourism. This is especially true for the final stages of any top tournament.

I’d like to point out that women’s handball in Russian is more popular than the men’s. This leads to belief that a strong women’s club with a brand title is going to attract new audience faster.

— But for the majority of the leading players of the national team who will find themselves in CSKA the absence of participation in European championships narrows the window of opportunities. Isn’t it dangerous?

— In the last season the competition window was narrowed for the national team players from Lada and Astrakhanochka that got kicked off from the EHF Cup in the first stages of the competition. There’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again.

Anyway, in case we see a danger for the national team in this situation, in order to improve the quality of game practice we can look into the possibility of loaning separate CSKA players in other teams. Without a doubt the preparation for the Olympic Games is the number one priority.

— What should expect Kuban in the next season?

— The club will compete in the Super League. The financing will continue, although not in the same volumes. We would like the local authorities and sponsors not to turn their backs to the club; we wish they would start helping out the club with such great traditions. You shouldn’t worry about the future of the club in the next season. Besides, who can abandon the club where the head coach is our national treasure, mastodon Evgeniy Trefilov?

— There might be some complaints in the fan community: first they strengthened Kuban at the expense of other clubs, now CSKA…

— Everyone is allowed own opinion, but I see it differently. It is only natural that the players choose the club which offers the better conditions and the one that aims at the highest goals to win the national championship and later participate in the Champions League, the team that unites the strong and the ambitious.

Russia should generate many generations of strong players as we now see in the present junior team of Lubov Sidoricheva. The desire to develop, change location to the Moscow club is very natural for everyone who thinks about his or her future.

Meanwhile I didn’t have a say in the HR policy of CSKA but I’m familiar with the squad and can say that there are no excesses.

— What do you think about SEHA Gazprom League project? Do you consider a possibility for a Russian club entering this competition?

— I support this idea. The additional playing practice is important for any Russian club. The issue is that participation in this project with complicated logistics bares serious financial costs.

But I think that the tournament with Gazprom as general sponsor, should have at least one Russian club in it. Moreover, with the upcoming changes in the format of the Champions League starting the next summer there probably won’t be a Russian club in it and we’ll have to search a level of competition which will let us back in the European top. EHA-League is perfect for this.

— The crucial task for the next season – qualification of the men’s team for the Olympic Games. Maybe there should be a special favorable training conditions for the team of Eduard Koksharov – additional training sessions in summer and autumn, training matches with strong competitors…

— It will most certainly be arranged. This question was discussed by the Executive Committee of the HFR. The situation in men’s handball is radically different from the one in women’s handball. The level of preparedness is much lower. One can count the number of players that can enforce the national team with the fingers of one hand. We’ll be convincing the coaches of the Super League to facilitate Koksharov in his cause. Only by uniting for the common purpose can we count on going to Tokyo.

— What’s the state of preferential approach for the team of Evgeny Trefilov? Do you often have to intrude to solve conflicts between him and his colleagues from the clubs regarding the additional training camps for the national team?

— Sometimes I have to get involved especially when it comes to the summer training camps. At the June meeting of the EC we have decided that since the purpose of such camps is mainly general fitness training, we don’t have a reason to not trust the clubs coaches. I’m sure that they’re able to functionally prepare the players for the season. And I believe that the coaching staff of Evgeny Trefilov should be granted more training time before the World Championship in December. And even more so – additional days or weeks before the Olympics if we get in. Here I will hope for the complete understanding of the clubs’ coaches.

There might be only one exception for Rostov-Don if they fight their way to DELO WOMEN’S EHF FINAL4 once again. Participation in Final4 is a good training and practice with the high-level competitors.

— What’s your assessment of the work of Russian referees?

— We had fewer refereeing scandals than in the previous season, that’s for sure. And I don’t remember mistakes that would influence the result of the game. But we do have a problem with ageing. Young succession pool and mentoring is a vital issue. We cannot allow the quality of refereeing to drop down, neither can we let them loose practice at the international arena.

I believe that we should turn away from discussing this matter behind closed doors. We have clear formats of protests and appeals. If referees are wrong, they have to carry punishment, same as the executives and coaches of the clubs that fringe ethical norms.

We should quit defending the referees that made mistakes, same as blaming them for the results of the game.

— You often communicate with top-management of the EHF and IHF. Changes in rules of the game and regalement is a widely discussed topic. What should we expect in the nearest future?

— The topic of decreasing a number of passes after the warning about the passive attack is discussed. The vector aimed at enforcing fair play. Players’ health is treated very seriously.

At the previous meeting with the EHF President we discussed reorganization of the Champions League and participation of our men’s clubs in the new format of European Cups. Our bid for the women’s EHF Championship was touched upon and the requirements we’ll need to fulfill in order to be considered as a bidder.

— Does it mean that we’re preparing such a bid?

— Yes, most likely for 2024 EURO. EHF EC will have to decide in November.

— Do plan to hold it at Moscow arenas?

— Not only in Moscow, there several candidates – St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Astrakhan, Tolyatti.

It is not entirely impossible, you know. For example, according to Michael Wiederer such city as Moscow shouldn’t be left without a Champions League. But in order to do so we have to improve our handball marketing substantially.

— What is that you don’t like in the operations of international handball federations?

—The growth of the number of the participants in the international and European championships. We shouldn’t make a circus out of it and do anything possible to attract teams from the USA and China. It is more rational to give those teams “wild cards”.

Otherwise we face a paradox. On the one hand we’re concerned with attracting more audience to high-quality intense top tournaments. And on the other hand – we let in a team from let say Haiti that won’t improve the audience appeal of the game. Same goes for the European championships. There should be a more rational approach.

I also cannot support the algorithm for organization of top tournaments in two and now in three countries simultaneously. Soon it can be four. They’re choosing the football way. It might be advantageous in terms of marketing. But a serious drop down in terms of concentrating the attention and a bonus for the country for development of the game. So far, I didn’t get this idea and hence don’t support it.

— What are your relationships with the colleagues from other federations? How do you communicate with them?

— Different relationships. The best friendly contacts are with the nearby states: Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine. We also closely cooperate with Polish, German and Netherlands federations. A Spanish coach is currently working at the Moscow Olympic reserve Academy and I hope we see the results of his work very soon.

I can tell for sure that we’re friends with every federation, the difference is in the level of closeness. You cannot stay in touch weekly and in the IHF most are gathered by the territorial principle however we have good friends at other continents.

— How did HFR strengthen its positions since you became President?

— I think the situation has changed radically. Now we’re involved in all processes that are going on at the EHF and IHF. We’re welcome to join all formats of communication and cooperation. There are no closed doors.

It’s not a secret that from time to time some groups try to sway HFR as an ally. I have to practice in diplomacy. We always choose the direction that goes in line with our national interests.

It is a big achievement because we saw a vacuum in the beginning. It wasn’t clear who and when meet up, how the decisions are made. But right now, we’re visiting congresses and other important meetings fully prepared and aware, firmly standing on our feet.