|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
25 - 31 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Is it time?
In the four years since Egypt reached the respectable plateau of sixth place in the world of handball it has been stymied in its attempts to ascend further up the ladder. In fact, it stumbled in 1999 when it finished seventh at the world championships it hosted, and at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But as its players embark on the 17th Men's World Handball Championship in France, the country is bent on not just climbing back a step but going up a few more to seriously challenge for a medal.
Egypt's Hussein Zaki about to fire at the Czech goal during a warm- up in Cairo
photo: Al-Ahram archives
"This year we are determined to improve our position," Mohamed El-Alfi, assistant coach of the national team, said "We want to prove we have progressed and step up to the podium for the first time in our history," added El-Alfi, who knows how it feels to be a winner, having led the junior team to the 1993 world championship.
A medal would not be the only Egyptian first at this championship. For Egyptian Hassan Mustafa the tournament will be his first as president of the International Handball Federation. Mustafa became the first Egyptian to head an international Olympic federation when he was elected on 28 November. The days ahead will see how his election to the top job in the sport will have an affect, if any, on his country's performance.
Twenty-four teams will vie for the sport's most prestigious title from 23 January to 4 February. Warm-up matches for the two-week competition included friendlies in France and Spain which preceded a concentrated two weeks of training in Cairo.
The participating teams are divided into four groups of six teams each. The first four teams in each group will go on to the second round. African champions Egypt play in Group A at Montpellier along with reigning world champions Sweden, Iceland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Morocco. Sweden should finish atop the group but Egypt could give it a battle for the berth. The rest of the group looks wide open but rank outsiders Iceland and the Czech Republic will probably pack up early.
Group B, in Nantes, includes Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, hosts France, Kuwait and Yugoslavia. France's target is not only to finish ahead of the group but get a gold medal. The pressure is on coach Daniel Costantini to accomplish both. Yugoslavia, always a threat, stands in the way. Algeria may act the spoiler.
Group C fixtures, in Besan------çon, has Croatia, Germany, Greenland, South Korea, Spain and the US battling in what looks like the toughest group. The betting is that Germany will come out on top but it's anybody's guess what happens then. Spain, Germany and Croatia should finish second, third and fourth It would be more than surprising if the US or Greenland manage to squeeze through.
Russia, the 1997 world champions and 1999 runners-up, is a hands down favourite to head Group D in Dunkerque. Slovenia, the Ukraine and Norway will be right behind. Tunisia is strong enough to contend but Arab compatriot Saudi Arabia will be nothing more than a spectator.
Should France reach the last 16, its knockout matches will be played in Albertville. The other three host towns are Amneville, Marseille and Toulouse. The semi-finals and final will be played at the Palais Omnisport de Paris Bercy in Paris. Emulating its 1998 football World Cup, France seeks to have the handball games played in as many cities as possible to spread the sport.
Following a total of 172 championship matches starting from 1938, including the Olympics and world and European championships, Sweden has been adjudged the best team of all time, slightly ahead of Russia. Sweden collected 258 points. Russia has a record of 158 matches and 249 points. Germany is third, 50 points behind Russia.
Sweden has been in all world championships, grabbing 15 points more than Russia. But when it comes to the Olympic Games, Russia is No 1. It has been in every Olympic Games since 1972, garnering four gold medals and a silver. In contrast, Sweden's Olympic performances have been mediocre by its standards. After winning three consecutive silver medals it then failed to qualify in 1976 and 1980.
But it is in the world championships where Sweden excels. Its see-saw battle for world supremacy with Russia was the highlight of the past decade and the war will certainly resume in France.
One of the hot favourites for the world's best handballer of 2000 is Swedish scoring machine Stefan Lövgren, the reigning titleholder. The 30-year-old THW Kiel player has so far this season scored 59 goals in the German Bundesliga. He also was among the top scorers in Sydney. Tipping the scales at 97 kilogrammes, the 196-centimetre-tall player has the weight and reach to penetrate and score seemingly at will. His prowess has resulted in 724 goals in 182 appearances for the national team and the count can only increase in France. Lövgren's record is impressive: Five-time Swedish champion with Redbergslid Göteborg, twice Swedish player of the year and a member of last year's Bundesliga all-star team.
Russian goalkeeper Andrej Lavrov is probably Lövgren's strongest challenger. Lavrov's poise and lightning reflexes in between the posts played a big role in the Russians winning the gold in Sydney. For Lavrov it was his third Olympic gold medal.
Two other viable candidates are Germany's Christian Swartzer and Talent Dujshebajew of Spain, named the best twice before.
Other nominees are Egypt's Gohar Nabil, best known for his defensive versatility, and Rastaman Jackson Richardson, whose consistency has given France a water-tight defense. Outside possibilities are Dragan Skrbic of Yugoslavia, Rolando Urios of Cuba and South Korea's Kyung Shin Yoon.
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