|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
25 - 31 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Place your bets
Forget football. Handball is right now and by far the best team sport Egypt has. Of course, soccer remains the most popular by a mile -- apparently never to be supplanted -- but on paper not nearly as successful. This month's FIFA seedings puts Egypt 30th in the world on the soccer field. On the handball court, however, the country stands in a far higher seventh place.
It wasn't always like that. Until the 1990's Egypt's handballers were good enough by African and Arab standards but against Europe, the stronghold of the sport, moments of glory were never easy to come by.
But by the start of the 1990's a remarkable reversal of form had taken place. A new federation, new coaches and bright young talent turned what was until then a modest team dreaming of rubbing shoulders with the giants of the sport to a respectable squad which time and again has stood head and shoulders above stronger opponents.
As the last decade began crowns and results flooded in: the African Nations cup; a silver medal in the 1991 Mediterranean Games in Greece; the 1993 World Junior Championship; and sixth-place finishes -- the highest any Egyptian team has reached in any team sport -- in the World Championships in 1995 and 1997 and the Atlanta Olympics.
A slight drop saw the team dip to seventh in the 1999 World Championship, a place it also occupied in last year's Sydney Olympics. Despite the slip, the seeds of a championship team had been sown and its foundation cemented.
The only thing missing from the trophy chest has and continues to be a medal at a World Championship and an Olympics.
The search for an elusive medal of any colour will continue at the World Handball Championship currently being held in France. Egypt would have to remove at least one powerhouse from the scene just to have a shot at the bronze. That has yet to happen in any international competition of note.
Acknowledging that previous promises rang hollow, officials this time are not promising the moon but instead are scaling down expectations to a solid performance on the ground which could produce a long-delayed visit to the podium.
Another problem, from the point of view of Egyptian officials, concerns referees. The officials claim shoddy and, more often, biased performances by referees, has cost Egypt plenty. In truth, some of Egypt's losses can be attributed to less than adequate refereeing. But are we to honestly believe that the world's referees have taken a sworn oath never to let any good come to Egyptian handball?
This scapegoat is wearing thin and should lose all credibility in the wake of the election of Hassan Mustafa, an Egyptian, as president of the International Handball Federation. Mustafa has made raising the level of referees a top priority.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Egypt's way is complacency. The players are safe in the knowledge that their top 10 ranking should silence the most vociferous of critics whenever they lose. But the players cannot continue patting themselves on the back. Singing their own praises will get them nowhere. In fact, resting on your laurels is the surest way to remaining static.
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