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World handball stage setBy Inas Mazhar
The headquarters of the local organising committee at Cairo Stadium is busy as a beehive these days as it puts the finishing touches to Egypt's preparations for the world handball championships beginning 1 June. More than a dozen committees are working in tandem as H-Day approaches. One of the busiest officials is Hassan Mustafa, president of the Egyptian Handball Federation and head of the organising committee. "This is a great honour," says Mustafa. Indeed it is. It is the first time the championship will be played in Africa or an Arab country. Since 1938, when the world championships began, Europe has dominated the sport, whether on the court or in organising championships. In 1995, however, Egypt took sixth place in the world championship in Iceland and things have never been the same since. "We surprised the Europeans," Mustafa said. "They envied us because we stole a slot from Europe." Up until then, the world's top 10 countries had been European.
Rehearsing for the big game photo: Khaled El-Fiqi
Egypt was awarded the organisation after a unanimous vote was taken at the congress of the International Handball Federation (IHF) in Atlanta in 1996 after a "fierce but honest battle" with France, Switzerland and Germany, said Mustafa.
The first world championship to be staged outside Europe was in 1997 in Japan. "And now, in 1999, the last year of the century, the 16th world handball championship will be held in the land of the pharaohs," Mustafa said.
In 1993, Egypt hosted -- and won -- the World Juniors Handball Championships. "Fortunately, our present national team has the same players who won the juniors title. In 1993, they were under 21, but now they are seniors and comprise the same team, and that's why we are aiming high. We are setting our sights on the world championship. We want to go down in history twice and combine both the juniors and seniors championships," said Mustafa.
Partly thanks to Egypt, the IHF has not only increased the number of African and Asian teams in the world championships but has also allowed them to host the game's most prestigious event on their continents. "Handball is now more popular and more respectable in Africa, and is improving in Asia with teams like Korea and China emerging as strong contenders," Mustafa said.
Mustafa said everything the IHF inspection committee had recommended and wanted during its visit to Egypt has been done, including a change of the floors of the three arenas -- in Cairo Stadium, Ismailia and Port Said -- to taraflex. "Thanks to the Arab Contractors, the floors were remade on time, though we faced problems in importing the material from abroad," Mustafa said, adding that things got even more difficult when the IHF insisted that all three floors be the same colour.
Mustafa said that work on the fourth venue of the championship, the police federation, was almost complete and would be ready to host Group A matches.
The championship is expected to attract as many as 350 media people from around the world, the highest number ever to cover a handball tournament.
"We have prepared five press centres to serve the international and local media," Mustafa said. "The main press centre is at the headquarters of the local organising committee, while the other four are at the main hall of Cairo Stadium's indoor complex, Ismailia and Port Said," said Farid Haggag, vice-president of the organising committee.
"According to IHF regulations," Haggag said, "Egypt should be ready to provide the 24 participating countries with free accommodation at five-star hotels starting 31 May. However, we have received many offers from nations that want to come to Egypt before the due date, either to train or to get acclimatised to our weather, such as Denmark, or because they face flight problems like Brazil." Haggag said that since Egypt will abide by IHF regulations, the teams which come early will pay for their accommodation in the hotels of their choice until the beginning of the championship. "They then will be transferred to the official hotels the committee is paying for," Haggag said.
The 24 teams will be divided into four groups. Following a round-robin format within each group, the top four countries of each group will qualify for round 16. Eight teams will reach the quarter-finals, to be scaled down to four in the semi-finals. The winners will play one game for the trophy, while the runners-up will play for third and fourth place. Other matches will be played to decide team positions from fifth to eighth place.
Denmark and Egypt drew 26-26 in a friendly in Cairo on Saturday, the first of three encounters. Denmark took the lead in the first half, but Egypt took control of most of the second half and was one goal ahead until Denmark equalised with a last-gasp effort.
"The team did a good job," said Spaniard Javier Garcia Cuesta, Egypt's head coach, following the match. "They followed my instructions, and although there were some mistakes, we will definitely work on them in order not to repeat them in the second and third matches. That's the good thing about playing friendly matches."
Denmark plays in Group A along with Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Argentina while Egypt plays in Group B which includes Germany, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Cuba and Macedonia. "We agreed to play Denmark because they play similarly to the Germans who will be our major threat in the group," Cuesta added.
Though Germany did not even qualify for the 1997 world championship, it has since developed into one of the strongest teams in the world, winning the World Cup in Sweden in March. The Germans beat Egypt, Russia and Sweden en route to the cup.
Interestingly, in 1993, Egypt beat Denmark in the final of the 1993 junior world championship. The Danes eventually won the junior crown in 1995, and have since developed into a well-oiled team using basically the same young players. It's a formula Egypt hopes will work for it as well.