A big interview of the President of the Russian Handball Federation to Sport Express.
In his interview to Sport Express, Sergey Shishkarev, the head of the Russian Handball Federation, discussed the exclusion of the Russia national teams and Russian clubs from international competitions, the Russia national teams’ performance at the World and European Championships, the appointment of Lyudmila Bodniyeva, the admittance of a Chinese team to the OLIMPBET Women’s Super League, the 21st consecutive championship of HBC Chekhovskiye Medvedi, and the magnificent comeback of Anna Vyakhireva.
I was sure that both CSKA and Rostov-Don would make it to the Final Four of the Women’s Champions League.
The most difficult season, which began with pandemic restrictions and ended with the suspension of Russian clubs and the national team from international competitions, is finally over. How will you remember this season?
As something unfinished. The domestic championship turned out to be insanely interesting, with incredible intrigue for both men’s and women’s teams. But as for the Women’s Champions League, I was sure from the very beginning of the season, that we would see both CSKA and Rostov-Don in the Final Four in Budapest.
There were very high expectations, and when everything suddenly just stopped overnight, there was a sense of deep frustration, resentment and injustice. These decisions were made without any legal foundation, decent explanation or reasonable argument. Let’s not dissemble, we all knew why this was happening. But they at least could have given us some explanation. In this context, the Norwegians, while having no ground to get involved in the matter, which I personally found extremely unpleasant, once again acted in the most indecent and obnoxious way.
What did they do?
They started attacking me personally and my Delo Group, right on the official website of the Norwegian Handball Federation. One would think that Norway is a civilized, advanced, secular and moral country, but it does play dirty. And this is not the first time the Norwegians act this way. The same happened with our skiers. After all, Norwegians skiers themselves have a long history of ‘not-so-clean’ behavior and became very irritated when they started losing to Russians. But I have already stopped appealing to international authorities about this.
And how did other federations act?
In a completely different way. They shared their great regret, sympathy and understanding that European handball would lose a lot from the suspension of Russian clubs. And the suspension of Belarusian clubs, too. I would say that the responses had two sides. Officially, they either were neutral or kept silent, but personally – in correspondence and conversations – they would say something like ‘This is so sad’ or ‘What about “keeping politics out of sports”?’. They all shared the same view: the Spanish, the French, the Croatians, and of course our Serbian friends.
Evgeny Trefilov admitted that he didn’t believe that the Russian national team would be allowed to the Paris 2024 Olympics. Is there any progress with the Federation’s appeal against the suspension of the national team and clubs? Was there any point in submitting it at all?
We had to at least try. Trying and failing is still better than doing nothing. I am a lawyer by my second occupation, and I believe that whenever you are discriminated on no legal grounds you must present your case even if you understand already that this is not about the law.
Trefilov’s statement is not based on anything. Let’s not guess. I understand perfectly well that the development of world sports is tied exclusively to the big political mess that is happening in the world right now. How it will be resolved, how long the economic sanctions will last – all this will affect the duration of the Russian suspension from international competitions.
We need to keep the Paris Olympics in mind. We need to prepare. How can anyone say otherwise? They are athletes. Sport is their entire life. They work hard, they get injured. And how can you say to them: ‘I don’t believe that we will get to Paris’?! We will do everything we can to get there. Even if we have to compete neutrally.
Just a few days ago, we managed to visit Cologne, where the men’s Champions League Final Four was held. There we held talks with the international and European handball leaders regarding the participation of Russian teams in international competitions. I would describe my conversations with Hassan Moustafa and Michael Wiederer as meaningful. Once again, we heard words of support from them. Dr. Moustafa spoke about his speech at the IOC meeting, in which he conveyed the position of the Russian side agreeing to compete without the national flag and anthem. We once again drew attention to the fact that without the Russian teams, the level of both women’s and men’s competitions would fall inevitably. We agreed with Hassan Moustafa and Michael Wiederer that the Russian Handball Federation would make another appeal regarding allowing Russian teams to compete in tournaments under the auspices of the International Handball Federation and the European Handball Federation. This is especially important given that the Paris Olympics are only two years away. We plan to appeal to all international authorities to have our athletes admitted to international competitions. For this, the Russian Handball Federation is ready to compromise and incur additional costs, e.g., hold matches at neutral venues, if necessary.
This will be the first season in the history of Russian handball that the national teams will not compete. What do you expect from it? Are there any special arrangements?
Two months ago, we held a wonderful – in my opinion – international tournament for our main and youth national teams and teams from China and Belarus. I believe it was interesting for both the players and the audience. We are now discussing a trip to China closer to the New Year. Perhaps some more national teams from Asia will be invited. So, you can’t really say that our national teams will not compete this year. I would rather say that they will not compete at official tournaments. But we will find new forms of competition for both our national teams and clubs, otherwise we will stop growing, lose popularity and future handball talents. This cannot be allowed.
We are now lagging behind at the qualifications for EURO and the 2023 World Championship. What is the absolute deadline for qualifying?
That would be 2024. I’ll explain why. If political decisions are made that will improve the situation, then, taking into account our strong relations with the International Handball Federation, I am convinced that we can get a wild card. And the last Olympic qualification matches will be played in the spring of 2024.
Petković has managed to change the mentality of our players: before him, players were already set to lose when they stepped onto the court.
At the World Championship in Spain, the women’s national team reached the quarterfinals, and the men at the EURO in Slovakia were competitive for the first time in a long time. Are you satisfied with the national teams’ performance this season?
Let’s start with the guys. Until recently, it was said that there was nowhere left to fall. As in a popular joke: ‘We thought we hit rock-bottom but then we heard someone knocking from below’. I am very proud of the guys and the national team. They’ve managed to turn people’s opinion around, to change their own inner mentality of an outsider. The goal was to make it into the top eight. We came 9th. But in terms of the effort and team spirit, it was a completely different team with quite strong prospects.
We won against Norway, we could have won against Spain, and lost to Germany just by one point. We just lacked a little bit of luck: two of our leading players were affected by the COVID-19 restrictions. For the first time in a long time, I was not ashamed of the team. Despite some defeats, it was very nice to hear finally that it was not only our girls that delivered, but that our guys showed a decent play and the highest dedication.
Should we thank head coach Velimir Petković for that? Is there a threat that he may leave due to the current situation?
We should thank both Petković, the guys themselves, our second coach Valentin Buzmakov, and the entire coaching staff. The most important thing is that Petković has managed to change the mentality of our players: before him, players were already set to lose when they stepped onto the court. He has made the players believe in themselves. As we could see from certain matches, situations, and formations, he proved that we can win if we really want to.
He is not going anywhere and continues to work with the national team. It is clear that the team’s motivation is somewhat different than that of a team that is preparing to perform at the international level. Nevertheless, despite all the uncertainty ahead of us, we will still have friendly matches with teams from China and Belarus. I hope we will come up with some new formats of away matches in friendly countries in Asia and Latin America. We will still find an opportunity to take our guys to other countries to be able to compete internationally.
Our women won silver in Tokyo this summer but went to the World cChampionship in Spain with an almost completely different line-up and a new head coach. How did this happen?
Of course, we heard a lot of criticism. And we understand why. Fans want victories and thrills right here and now. During my presidency, we have taught fans that every second year we must have some kind of medal in our pocket. Gold in Rio, silver at the EURO, bronze at the World Championship, silver at the next Games… But it was an absolutely well-weighed and thoughtful decision. The change of generations is still a thing. We did discuss the issue both at the Executive Committee meetings and with experts. In addition to the need to rejuvenate the team, we also understood that the Paris Olympics were only two and a half years away. During this period, the youngsters would gain experience, catch up with the rest of the team, especially given that at the time, our leading clubs played in European competitions. We understood perfectly well that during this period, the generation of Managarova, Ilyina, Makeeva, Dmitrieva, Vyakhireva would not lose, but rather further develop, their skills. We would keep half of the players, the backbone of the team, and introduce new ones.
So, the rejuvenation took place. Another significant event took place in Russian handball: for the first time in history, our women’s national team was headed by a woman. It was also a well-weighted decision. Lyudmila Bodnieva has proven herself as a great player: she is a multiple world champion, ten-time Slovenian champion, winner of the Champions League. She has never worked as a head coach before, but she did help a large number of young handball players in Ljubljana, and then helped HBC CSKA Moscow after Jan Leslie was fired. Both Olga Akopyan and Lyudmila Bodnieva deserve recognition for the team’s last year’s championship. Lyudmila Bodnieva was responsible for many tactical decisions and game schemes, she also worked individually with certain players.
Plus, we watched her closely during the Olympics. One cannot underestimate her role in winning the silver. In addition to male coaches, the coaching staff included Akopyan and Bodnieva, two fairly young specialists who were mentally closer to the players and who could skillfully smooth out the rough edges in other coaches’ approach. So, the idea to appoint her head coach did not come out of the blue.
Bodnieva would never raise her voice or use obscene language.
Did she agree easily?
No, she did not. It took us long time to convince her. She still remembers the time when the Federation and coaches relied on the dictatorial approach. Bodnieva is a person of a different generation, a different background. She would never raise her voice or use obscene language. She can be emotional or lose her temper, but in the most delicate and fair way... We also treated this appointment as some sort of challenge, wondering ‘will it work?’.
Can we say now that at some point Bodnieva’s ‘carrot’ approach lacked Trefilov’s ‘stick’ element?
She didn’t lack anything. She was assisted by Tomáš Hlavatý. Many thanks to him and congratulations on winning the national championship! Having worked with the national team, he knew the abilities of HBC CSKA players very well, and this helped him a lot in the decisive matches of the domestic championship.
I think that no stick was needed. I don’t remember ever having such an atmosphere, which I know from the inside, from conversations with the players. It was not a democracy where players could do anything they wanted. On the contrary, there was a different, concentrated responsibility for the result, that was driven by mutual respect and not by yelling and cursing. Respect means trust. And if you are trusted, you must show your best. Therefore, even though we were not able to make it to the final four, we still believe that our performance was satisfactory. Basically, we needed some more experience, a little bit of strength and a better line-up. Problems with line players were especially noticeable. Ksyusha Makeeva, whom we once again congratulate on the birth of her daughter, was missing. For me, she is a perfect athlete, and when a perfect athlete has a child, she becomes a perfect athlete-mom.
Everyone was talking about some crazy distribution model for the Women’s World Championship, due to which all four semifinalists and seven of the eight quarterfinalists of the last Olympics got into one half of the table.
Yes, the distribution model was changed shortly before the championship in an absolutely arbitrary way. And everyone knew why. So, we lost to the future finalists. Neither of the teams expected such a table right after the Olympics. Therefore, the outcome was absolutely expected and adequate. Maybe they could have lost fewer points to the Norwegians. But in general, the team made it, got united and believed in the coach. Imagine what could have happen had Makeeva, Vyakhireva and Dmitrieva been there. There would have been a completely different outcome.
I wish Trefilov were a dozen years younger, then we could have expected him to make the Chinese team win the Olympics!
Is it possible to keep the players motivated and maintain the interest of the audience without the EHF matches and without official matches of the national team?
Judging from the Russian Championship finals, I would say ‘yes’. To the best of my recollection, there has never been such an intrigue. Men’s CSKA team, being six points ahead, lost the championship only due to a smaller number of away goals (the rule was canceled starting from the 2022/23 season). The battle between HBC Rostov-Don and HBC CSKA and a full house in both cities suggest that neither the players nor the audience have lost their passion for the sport.
There are already agreements that a Chinese team will play in the OLIMPBET Women’s Super League next season. China main national teams, both women’s and men’s, have been preparing in Moscow for more than two months. Ms. Wang Tao, Chairman of the Chinese Handball Association, is also in Moscow now.
We are likely to return to the old model and not divide the participants into two sixes. Maybe we will come up with a new format to increase the interest of the audience in the second half of the championship and arrange more rating matches. We might return to the ‘thrice-to-beat’ playoff format. In the last championship, the teams played two matches in the playoffs due to the time constraints associated with the national team’s preparation for international tournaments. The increased number of matches and greater coverage by sports channels are expected to increase the audience’s interest.
We are also currently negotiating the creation of a Russian-Belarusian league. There will definitely be international matches. Probably, these will not be against top opponents, but in women’s handball we already have our own top teams.
How did you come up with the idea of inviting Chinese teams, and how can they help us?
We came up with this idea in September last year. The agreement was signed in November and after that, a large delegation from China visited Russia. We must have had second sight. Now we have a reliable partner interested in the development of our sport. It is clear why the Chinese Handball Association would need us. We are leaders in this sport, especially in women’s handball. We can coach and prepare the Chinese teams for the Asian Games, which will take place in the fall of 2023. They have one goal – get to the Olympics from Asia.
They are hugely interested in the development of handball. Hassan Moustafa, President of the International Handball Federation, pays great attention to this market. Chinese players are competitive in the best sense of the word. For us, this is a chance to expand the professional expertise of our coaches, and for weaker teams – an opportunity to learn another country’s handball techniques. The Asian technique is more dynamic. We also need to remember that commitment is a great driver for success.
What do you mean?
Chinese athletes are insanely focused, pedantic and responsible. If they set their hand to something, they definitely want to achieve the highest result. We have already mentioned Trefilov, and gentle approach is not always the best option. The refine European ways are not suitable for everyone. China is a perfect example of passion for work and commitment to improvement and success.
Trefilov did coach Chinese girls. Making him the head coach of the Chinese team would be an awesome move. This fact alone would attract great interest to the team.
It is a brilliant idea, but the main obstacle remains. Trefilov would break his back for the Chinese team, the same way he did for the Russians. Unfortunately, his health is not as strong as it was. Whenever he has a chance to step onto the court and coach, he delivers 100% and has to deal with another relapse. I wish Trefilov were a dozen years younger for this idea to become reality. We could have expected him to make the Chinese team win the Olympics!
Will the Chinese TV broadcast the China team? Can we use it as an opportunity to increase our handball’s TV market?
We can and we certainly will. What Ms. Wang Tao does and what kind of feedback she and her team get from the Chinese Ministry of Sports has exceeded all expectations. We talked the other day, and she said that they also want her to take over basketball and volleyball. Of course, we will consider the TV marketing opportunities, as we do want to enter the Chinese market. This would provide additional financial support for our OLIMPBET Super League and multiply the Chinese audience’s interest in the Russian championship.
What status will the Chinese team have in the Russian Championship? Will it be a full-fledged participant in the tournament, or will it perform out of competition? Will the results of matches against it be taken into account?
The Chinese team will be a full-fledged participant of the Russian Championship. We are now getting work permits for Chinese athletes as high-class specialists. All matches will be held within the Championship. I think that by the middle of the season, the Chinese athletes will gain more experience and hunger for winning.
What will be the name of the Chinese team, and who will finance it?
All costs, including food, accommodation, training, will be at the expense of the Chinese side. Moreover, our coaches will get an extra pay from them. There is no name yet, but we’ve been working on it. There is still time, the preparation for the season will start in a month and a half. Probably, it should be something that is pleasant for the Chinese ears and doesn’t sound odd for Russian people.
HC Kunlun has not been successful in ice hockey. It is at the bottom of the board. And it never drew much interest, even when they played in China. How to prevent the history from repeating itself in handball?
Hockey fans are spoiled. Fans will not show up at the stands to see poor performance. I am sure that everything will be different for us. First, this is an exotic sport. Second, the Chinese team can play at the same level as the second six teams in the current Championship. This will attract additional attention and interest of the audience. I am sure, there will be no empty stands.
Can Russian athletes play in this team, or will it be purely Chinese?
The majority of players will be from China. But why would the transfer policy prevent them from attracting Russian athletes? So, at a certain stage, it will be possible.
Without Vyakhireva, it would be much more difficult for HBC Rostov-Don to win.
For the 21st time in a row, HBC Chekhovskiye Medvedi won gold at the Men’s National Championship. Are there any benefits from such supremacy? After all, things like that kill interest in the league.
HBC Chekhovskiye Medvedi has been steadily and consistently led by Vladimir Maksimov, the greatest coach of our time. I can’t help but admire this achievement, but from the point of view of handball development, this is not the best scenario. At the same time, we expect more from other clubs, too. For example, by winning the Russian Cup, HBC Victor from Stavropol boosted the interest in handball in its region.
HBC Rostov-Don won another gold at the Women’s National Championship. Do you think this would have happened if HBC Rostovchanka’s superstar Anna Vyakhireva missed the entire season?
No, it definitely wouldn’t! Anya scored 21 goals in two matches at the finals and delivered a phenomenal performance. She played mind-blowingly well. Without Vyakhireva, it would be much more difficult for the Rostov team to win.
After the World Championship, you said: ‘I hope Vyakhireva starts to miss handball’. Did her longing for the game exceed all possible expectations?
It did. She returned as this warm-hearted, pleasant and hot-eyed person happy about everything: training sessions, games, communication with the girls, getting into the national team. I don’t know with whom she worked during her absence, with higher powers, shrinks, or herself, but the break definitely did her good. When she returned, she was not just missing handball, she madly wanted to play and prove that she is the best in the world.
What is the current situation with the expatriate players? Did any of them asked for a bigger pay due to the recent events? Are there those who refused to have contact with our clubs for political reasons?
The situation with the expatriate players is quite simple. Almost all of them left. As far as I know, in HBC CSKA, only Sara Ristovska chose to stay. Salary increase is not an option since the budgets are being cut. As the main sponsor of the Federation and several clubs, I am also unable to increase the budgets. Most likely, there will be an outflow of players, including Russian ones, that we will not specifically interfere with.
Is it likely that other countries would ban Russian athletes from competing in their leagues? And if Russian players choose to return to Russia, will they be assisted in finding employment?
At the moment, there are no such bans. Moreover, contracts with players playing in Romania, Turkey and other countries are being extended. There are no grounds for such a ban. The only thing I worry about are acts of provocation that our players may be exposed to in the most aggressive countries. But we will stand guard over the interests of our athletes.
What is the situation with sports gear, given the withdrawal of leading companies from the market?
We continue to actively cooperate with Joma. Sports gear is not some super-exclusive equipment that our industry would need to replace as part of the import substitution program. Given the available logistical options and partnerships, which, as a rule, are not only with uniform manufacturers, but also with other federations that recommended such manufacturers to us, I think we will resolve all issues.
Igor RabinerSource: Sport Express