Precious little of the handball world will be surprised that the Great Britain men’s team have failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championships. In fact, we never have, so why start now?
The answer, some may throw back at me, is that we recently made our presence felt on the world stage, hosting the Olympic handball tournament at London’s (very nice) Copper Box venue. A tournament that we finished rock bottom in (twelfth out of twelve), with a goal difference of -86 some 61 goals down on our nearest rivals, Argentina. In a group where the highest scorers in an individual match were France with 44 (against us, naturally), Great Britain could only muster 24 in our best performance – one we lost 24-41 to Iceland.
One shining light in the dismally disappointing competition was Steven Larsson, British top-scorer in three of the five matches. Born in Scarborough, Larsson moved to Linköping, Sweden as a youngster. Despite being eligible to play for Sweden and Norway, Larsson opted to represent his father’s nation and competed for his national team at his home Olympics. Now playing for RP IF Linköping, Larsson performed admirably in the Iceland game with a nine-goal haul, but he couldn’t drag his team-mates along with him.
Larsson was the star man once again for the latest round of Phase 1 qualification matches in Motherwell and Crystal Palace against Italy and Greece respectively. Despite Greece aggressively man-marking Team GB’s best player, Larsson felt that the team as a whole had grown between the two home games. “The team performance was better than against Italy on Thursday because we stopped thinking about making mistakes and just played great,” he revealed. “My own performance was OK but it was a shame that Greece man marked me in the second half and took me out. Maybe I could have helped the other guys more.” His inability to assist his team further meant that Great Britain lost 47-23 in Scotland and, by the time they were beaten 32-20 in a much closer match against Greece, qualification was mathematically impossible.
The majority of the squad selected for the games were chosen from Salford HC, sitting second in the Men’s Super 8 league run by England Handball. They currently sit six points adrift of league leaders London Great Danes, unbeaten in twelve matches. Compared to Salford’s eight Britons, only Sebastian Prieto, formerly of Viking Stavenger of Norway but now at London GD, plays at the very top table. Yet, when he admits “I haven’t been playing since the Olympics and feel rusty”, you realise there’s a serious dearth of talent in our domestic leagues. In fact, the entire Super 8, as well as the organisation running it, feels woefully inadequate compared to the best Europe has to offer.
There’s not much light at the end of the tunnel, either. The draw for the Junior World Championships is made later this month and, surprise surprise, Great Britain are nowhere to be seen. True, it’s a little early to harp on about the “legacy” – participation numbers are already on the up – but facilities still aren’t in place to nurture future Olympic hopefuls. Handball just isn’t on the British radar like it is across the rest of Europe. With no funding secured for the 2016 cycle, it isn’t likely to get there any time soon.
Still, at least Ireland haven’t won a game yet this year, either.