Five questions before the start of the 2022 IHF Women’s Junior World Championship
21 Jun. 2022
The wait is almost over. After four years, the IHF Women’s Junior (U20) World Championship will make its comeback in Slovenia, with 32 teams at the start. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the previous edition in Romania, the best players in the world in this category will take the court in Slovenia, in three different arenas, ready to fight for the coveted gold medal.
We will be looking with a fine-tooth comb over the next 10 days of competition in Celje and Lasko, but before the throw-off, due on Wednesday, what are the main questions surrounding the 23rd edition of the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship, the first to take place in Slovenia?
How will the 32-team line-up influence the competition?
The first edition of the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship, which took place in 1977, had 14 teams at the start. The number of competing sides gradually increased over the years, as Korea 2010 was the first one to boast 24 teams at the start. With the main focus of the IHF being the development of handball in emerging markets, it was just high time for the competition to bring 32 teams to the party for the first time in history, mirroring the line-up of the senior IHF World Championship.
Therefore, a new format was introduced for Slovenia 2022, with eight groups of four teams each, with the top two teams in each group progressing to the main round. Four groups of four teams each will be formed in the main round, with the top two teams in each group progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition. This will increase the quality of the competition, as each game will be paramount for the teams competing for a medal.
Three sides will make their debut at Slovenia 2022, Guinea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and India. The first two rookies will clash in Group B, which also consists of Sweden and Tunisia, while India face Slovakia, the Netherlands and Japan in Group A. Italy, who received a Wild Card from the IHF, make their return to the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship for the first time since 1983, while the United States of America are also back after a 41-year wait.
How will the teams feel when they make their comeback into a major tournament?
As previously mentioned, both the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship in Romania and the IHF Women’s Youth World Championship in Croatia were cancelled in 2020 due to the heavy impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as this generation of players failed to compete for the world title two years ago in Croatia. Continental competitions were, however, in full swing in the ensuing years, as Hungary, the reigning world champions in this category, produced another superb outing at the Women’s 19 EHF EURO last summer to clinch another gold medal to add to their superb collection built in the past years.
Undoubtedly, the emotions will be running high for players who will be representing their national teams on the biggest of stages at the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship for the final time in their careers before making the step to senior handball. But with plenty of them already making their name well-known, it will be just business as usual, with an added spice of motivation to prove their names once again at this level.
Will Hungary repeat their success from 2018?
Hungary 2018 was a perfect championship for the hosts, who won the competition in style, boasting eight wins in eight matches to win their first gold medal in history at the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship. With a plethora of talented players in the squad, which later established themselves at senior level, Hungary marked the start of a golden era, confirmed at the Women’s 19 EHF EURO in 2019 and 2021, when they also secured the trophy in a flawless manner, without dropping a game. In fact, one must go back in time to 2017 to search for Hungary’s last loss in a major tournament, which speaks volumes about their consistency.
Returning to the “Zlatorog Arena” in Celje, where they won the gold medal at the Women’s 19 EHF EURO in 2021, Hungary will have a changed squad, but the same big ambitions. In the history of the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship, only two teams retained their title – the Soviet Union and more recently Russia, in 2003 and 2005, respectively – as Hungary’s task will be difficult. But their form is superb – highlighted by the wins against Romania (40:29), Angola (27:14) and the Republic of Korea (32:19) in a friendly tournament in Siofok. Retaining the MVP of the Women’s 19 EHF EURO in the squad, Blanka Kajdon, will also be huge for Hungary, who can become the first team to retain their trophy at the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship in 17 years.
Who can challenge Hungary for the gold medal?
Who can challenge Hungary for the win, though? France finished third at the Women’s 19 EHF EURO last summer and had a mixed bag of results in friendly matches, with wins against Portugal (31:24) and Germany (29:27) overshadowed by a loss against Spain (25:27). However, they have plenty of experience in their roster, with line player Sarah Bouktit and goalkeeper Melanie Halter shining for Metz Handball this season. They will also be tested heavily in the preliminary round, being drawn in the most balanced group, alongside Norway, Brazil and the Republic of Korea.
The silver medallists from Hungary 2018, Norway, could also be branded as contenders, despite finishing ninth at the Women’s 19 EHF EURO last summer. A perennial contender in the past editions, Germany, ushered new talent into the squad over the past months, but their results in friendlies – losses against France (27:29) and Portugal (24:25), followed by a win against Spain (28:27) – take a bit of shine away from them. Teams like Denmark, the Netherlands or Sweden, who faced each other and traded wins in a friendly tournament at the start of June could also be outsiders, as well as Romania, with the latter side being handed a kind draw on their way to the quarter-finals, where everything can happen.
Are there stars to watch?
Surely, like in every edition of the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship. Players like Henny Reistad, Nathalie Hagman, Althea Reinhardt, Larke Nolsoe or Anna Vyakhireva have all been selected in the All-star Team in the past 10 years in this competition. They basically translated their skills from the junior level to the senior one in no time, shining on the biggest of stages immediately. Surely, the 23rd edition of the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship will brew new stars, as several players have already made their mark at senior level.
Take, for instance, Metz’s Sarah Bouktit and Melanie Halter, who will represent France at Slovenia 2022, after taking the court at the EHF FINAL4 at the start of June for the French champions, finishing third in the EHF Champions League Women. Despite being unproven at senior level, Dutch back Kim Molenaar already looks to be in superb form, putting 29 goals past Sweden, Denmark and Norway in the Scandinavian Open, a friendly tournament which took place in Kalmar, Sweden, two weeks ago.
Sweden will bring four players who have already made their debut in the senior squad – Thea Blomst, Clara Petersson Bergsten, Charité Mumbongo and Tyra Axnér, while Hungary have the MVP of the Women’s 19 EHF EURO 2021, Blanka Kajdon. Romania’s right back Alicia Gogirla is also one of the players to watch, as well as another back, Czech Republic’s Charlotte Cholevová, who was the second top scorer of the Women’s 19 EHF EURO 2021 with 55 goals.