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The President of the European Handball Federation discussed the prospects for the handball development and the friendship with Russia with “Sport-Express”

Handball has all the chances to become one of the leading sports in Europe in the next 10 years. The figures show that the European Cups profit growth rate already exceeds football – 105% over the last five years vs. 95% of the UEFA. Russia is yet on the sidelines of the top tournaments, but it is working on changing that. In January 2020 we were close to receiving the EURO-2024 hosting rights. Now the Handball Federation of Russia is considering bidding for the European Championship - 2026.
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During the visit of the President of the European Handball Federation it was of one of the key discussion topics. Michael Wiederer held a meeting with the President of the Russian Olympic Committee Stanislav Pozdnyakov, visited the DELO EHF Women’s Champions League match “Rostov-Don” – “Metz” and discussed the prospects for the Russian handball development with the President of the Handball Federation of Russia Sergey Shishkarev. Prior to the Rostov-on-Don match Mr. Wiederer gave a big interview to “Sport-Express” – where he told us why Russia needs a powerful handball boost, about the Evgeniy Trefilov phenomena and about holding handball matches at football stadiums.

Mr. Wiederer, you came to Russia for the “Rostov-Don” – “Metz” match but clearly it is not the only reason.

Certainly, our task is to cooperate with all countries, particularly the ones with good handball potential. I held a meeting with the President of the Russian Olympic Committee Mr. Stanislav Pozdyakov in Moscow, where I also got a chance to visit the headquarters of the general sponsor of the DELO EHF Women’s Champions League – the Russian company Delo Group. Concluding the visit with the match was an excellent opportunity. Even more so, I’ve heard that the “Rostov-Don” fans stand for the construction of the new arena.

In three years, we’ll establish the new standards for the Women’s Champions League, including the requirements for the quality and capacity of the arenas. The success and the development of the Men’s Champions League occurred largely thanks to the new big arenas and new sponsors. Now we’re aiming to level up the women’s tournament. It is already very strong sport-wise, but we need infrastructure. Rostov is a very important city for us with the world-class women’s club.

Russia wants to host top tournament, European Championships. It was important for me to come and tell the local authorities about the upcoming new requirements – look, in a few years current arena won’t be enough. You won’t be able to host here neither the Champions League, nor the national teams’ matches.

IF THE POST-SOVIET PROJECT GETS THE POLITICAL APPROVAL, WE’LL BE ABLE TO DISCUSS IT

You’ve spent almost four days in Russia and a lot of time with Sergey Shishkarev, President of the Handball Federation of Russia. He is a businessman; you’ve always been an advocate for the positive marketing in handball. Did you find common views on handball?

There’s one big difference between us. Sergey is a true handball fan and fan of his teams. I cannot afford favoring anyone. When he watches the matches of the Russian team he worries and cheers, I must stay quiet. (Laughing) But we definitely have a similar understanding of handball. Sergey knows how to manage his business and does it successfully. His key responsibility is to develop his business, our responsibility is to develop handball considering viewpoints of players, referees and everyone concerned but first and foremost we care about our mission to provide entertainment. People should want to visit the match, turn on the TV, interact with our social media. It is essentially a business. That’s why I wanted to see for myself the container and logistics business of Mr. Shishkarev and how it develops. It is always important to look for the new ideas that could be useful in your field. So, the trip to Russia was very educational and interesting.

Our fans are wondering when Russia will be able to host a top tournament. We bid for the EURO-2024 but forfeited to Austria, Hungary and Switzerland. What was wrong with our bid?

It was perfectly okay, believe me. The bid was very professional. Maybe some bad luck with coordination. Two years ago, EHF wanted Russia to host the EURO-2024 but at that time there was not enough support from the government authorities. When the second joint bid from three countries was places, we thought that such combination might be successful. Choosing the host is obviously more of a political rather than economic decision. The three countries with strong lobby had good chances. Hungary is a big handball country, the remaining two are though not that strong but Austria has vast organizing experience and Switzerland has a strong lobby.

There was also the second factor, I’ll try to make a point neutrally. The vote took place during the time when the Russia’s position on the Olympic movement was under assessment with re-opening of the anti-doping investigation.

Does it have an imprint on the decision?

I don’t know, no one says it openly. I can suspect that the voters thought it would be easier to hold the tournament in other countries. We consider not holding a top tournament in Russia unfortunate. And I hope that soon your fans will see the top championship in your country, you’ve got a big potential.

Previously Sergey Shishkarev said that Russia may bid for the EURO-2026 with the other post-soviet states. What do you think about it?

I’m in no way involved in this matter, so it’s tough to judge. I’m sure handball facilitates good relations in our communities. For example, the former Yugoslavia. Yes, it took time, but the clubs have their own league and fans situation improved. Sport played its part. If the post-soviet project gets the political approval, we’ll be able to discuss it.

EVERYONE HAS OWN PHILOSOPHY

Will WADA recommendations influence future choices? Does the EHF have any problems with Russia concerning the doping issue?

According to the legal provisions WADA decision doesn’t influence the European tournaments. The new situation didn’t affect the EHF but if it’s hard to tell if it influenced the past vote. When we talk about 50 countries, the various motivations are possible. Someone is ruled mostly by the favorability of the location, someone could think “Russia has a strong team and home tournament would leave us less chances”. But the situation of uncertainty could have somewhat affected the vote. I don’t see any problems now. We cooperate with the Handball Federation of Russia, clubs, players, referees. We have no doubts about Russia.

You have mentioned a good handball potential of Russia. What gives you this impression? Russia has football, ice hockey, figure skating. How is it possible to attract the audience, make people move from the ice hockey to the handball arena?

Over 145 million people live in Russia. There’re more than enough people to watch and play handball. We’re constantly working on handball development plans. One of the recent research shows that handball is the optimal sport for TV broadcast based on the cameras placement and the size of the field. Positive atmosphere, dynamics, fair play. Yes, the players collide but they know it is a part of the game and in 99% of the case it stays there. Handball as a sport was solid prospects. The rest is the EHF responsibility. We have to provide the national federations including Russian with the effective instruments to show people how attractive our sport is. We need more mass media coverage, more contracts, higher ratings.

The interest to handball varies in Europe as well. There are Scandinavia, the Balkan states, Germany but there are such states as Great Britain where handball isn’t that popular. Does your strategy focus more on top-counties or on those where handball is yet underdeveloped?

Let’s take a look back. When we launched the European Champions League, in ten year we had the final “Barcelona” – “Kiel”. Such games are rarely broadcasted in Germany and almost never in Spain. Now the Champions League matches are broadcasted by 20-25 channels in average. Albania, Romania, Greece. We’ve accomplished a lot. It is the only way to make our sport valuable. Yes okay, we’ve got the broadcast in Germany. But we’ve had it there already. And that’s a totally another story if we break through to Great Britain and Italy – the two big markets in sports industry. We need to support those countries, TV and concentrate on that.

One of the prominent personalities in Russian handball is Evgeny Trefilov. Are you personally acquainted with him and how do you like his coaching style?

Oh, I know him for many years. I was a technical delegate at the matches, the world championships when he was a coach. Firstly, he is a very disciplined specialist. The game itself disciplines him. Secondly, when he argues with you it is not a show or a tactical game, he thoroughly knows the subject. And thirdly, players love him (Mr. Wiederer said “love” but then corrected himself – “like” – “SE”). What he demonstrates to the world during matches is a bit excessive. It doesn’t improve the communications that are also important in the handball world.

But it is also a show that sport needs, is it not?

I agree. But with such strong emotions during the match it is not always easy to keep the balance. I think sometimes he overdoes it.

Basically, you support the more liberal style of coaching.

No, it is not about what I support. I say what appearance it gives.

But Trefilov is handball super star, right?

Yes, yes, absolutely without a doubt. We have to understand that each country has own philosophy. The women’s status in Norway differs from the one in Russia. It is a wide social issue. So, for example this style would be… surprising for Norwegians. (Laughs) But we have many nations, diversity and we need understanding. Each country has own philosophy.

I have many friends and colleagues in the Balkan states. When you hear them talk to each other an impression of the upcoming fight is unavoidable. And it turns out they casually discuss the trivia but with the characteristic emotional manner. We’re all different with own mentalities. I tend not to judge people by their nationality, I do not have the prejudice.

WE INTRODUCED VIDEO REPLAY BEFORE FOOTBALL DID

Talking about the promotion of sport let me share the sxapmle with you. MMA – the sport that leaped forward in the last five years. Have you heard about Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov?

Honestly, no. But I’m not a fan of fights.

The thing is that they speak harshly about one another and it promotes the event. Is this trick applicable in handball?

No, it has nothing to do with our sport. We’re traditionalists and should hold on to our roots. The new creative approaches are an order. However, we are not going to modify our DNA, it is important to us.

Another twist – matches at the football stadiums. In case Russia receives an honor to host the EURO-2026, is the final at “Luzhniki” stadium realistic? Like the football World Cup -2018.

We hold matches at big arenas. But football stadiums…We’ve had such experience and it wasn’t very successful for handball. It wasn’t even that good for the ice hockey at the opening match of the World Championship – 2010 Germany – USA with 80 thousand spectators. It was impossible to see anything; it was just a show. Surely the players need the atmosphere and we must ensure that the game is played at good arenas with a fair play. Meanwhile the past Men’s EURO play-off was held at the covered football stadium in Stockhold and it was okay – 20 thousand spectators at the final. The opening match of the EURO-2024 in Germany will probably be held in Dusseldorf at the 55-thousand stadium. We use such option but only when it’s justified and allows to hold the game in the best way.

Many sports change the rules of the game to make it more entertaining. Is there a rule in handball that you don’t like?

We adapt the rules of the game in handball too, but the EHF can speak out, influence but not make decisions – the definitive decision is the priority of the International Handball Federation. For example, the fast center rule changed the game a lot. We concentrate not so much on the rules’ amendment but more on how the rules should be interpreted. If you’re asking me about the rule I don’t like, it is the interpretation of the foul during the attack rule. It is very hard to establish whether it took place or not. We can discuss it but the spectators don’t usually understand what happened.

Do you always understand it?

I understand if it was justified or not. But for a non-professional at the arena it is not always easy to see all the peculiarities and to understand why a referee made a decision.

Video replays are the possible solution.

We do have the replays; we’ve introduced them earlier than football. But it is also the question of logistics. How can we transfer them from top tournaments to the lower level? It is very expensive and not everyone has infrastructure that would allow us to install it.

What about the beach handball, should it be in the Olympic program? It would help the promotion.

Yes, we’re fighting for it.

What is the position of the IOC?

They will decide after the Tokyo-2020. Maybe beach handball will be included in the Paris Olympics. We are not participating in the decision-making process. The best we can do it to hold the best European and world beach championships to influence it.

WE NEED STRONG WOMEN’S CLUBS AND COMPETITION

How much do the Champions League and its participants earn?

I can say that in the nearest future the winner of the Men’s Champions League will get minimum 1 million euro, a bit less for the winner of the Women’s Champions League. According to our business strategy, over the next 10 years the profits will increase fourfold. (EHF earned almost 20 million euro in the last Champions League with the TV rights sale and sponsorship – “SE”)

Do you like that the Champions League has a range of grand champions, isn’t it a threat for the competition? We already can assume that the frontrunner of the women’s League is “Győr” with “Metz” and “Rostov-Don” runners-ups, top clubs in the men’s League are “Barcelona”, “PSG” and “Vesprem”.

We need strong women’s clubs and competition because one can’t stand too long on the one leg, they need the second. In any case the stronger competition in national teams, in men’s and women’s club handball will work in our favor.

Are you satisfied with the progress you’ve achieved as President of the EHF over the past four years?

Progress is a never-ending story. Development of handball and growing numbers make me happy. But the strategy we’re implementing will take more time to show the results. We’re definitely on the right track and our community has a positive feedback to what we’re doing.

Will handball ever be as popular as football?

I want to see that. But we should remain realistic – handball is a complicated sport, much more complicated than football. The rules, the numerous actions on a small field is not always easy to understand. I play football myself; I like and enjoy it! It is simpler and that’s why it’s attracting more people. Our sport is the sport of schools, universities, for those people who like solving complicated tasks.

Source - SPORT EXPRESS NEWSPAPER, 27/02/2020