NetherlandsCoach: Staffan Olsson
Handball has been making huge gains in the Netherlands, but the process was long and arduous, both for the men's and the women's national teams. The latter won the first IHF World Championship title in 2019, with a golden generation, but the men's team has also been developing well and producing outstanding talents in recent years.
The rise has not been fulminant, rather than a step-by-step approach, with the 17th place at the EHF EURO 2020 setting up another excellent European tournament in 2022, when they eliminated co-hosts Hungary and finished 10th, despite a flurry of COVID-19 cases stopping the progress in its tracks.
But the Netherlands have not just sat back and waited for something to happen, with a lot of work put into developing the HandbalAcademie in Papendal. This academy unearthed plenty of gems over the past years.
The path towards the 2023 IHF Men's World Championship was not easy for the Dutch side, who lost the doubleheader against an equally talented Portugal team in the Qualification Europe Phase 2, 61:65 on aggregate, despite a 33:30 win in the first leg.
But the development and the talent on display were recognised by the International Handball Federation, which awarded the Netherlands a wild card, sending the team to the final tournament for the first time since 1961.
The challenge will not be easy for the Dutch side, who have been drawn in Group F, one of the toughest in the preliminary round, alongside two European sides, Norway and North Macedonia, and a plucky South American side in Argentina, with very tough matches awaiting the Netherlands.
But with Luc Steins, the MVP of the French league in the past two seasons and right back Kay Smits, a winner of the IHF Men's Super Globe in 2021 and 2022 with SC Magdeburg and the fourth-best scorer at the EHF EURO, with 45 goals, everything is possible.
Yet one of the first issues the Dutch side have to solve is the transition from former coach, Erlingur Richardson, to the new coach Staffan Olsson, who has been leading the team since July 2022.
"The goal is to play for the medals, in the long run, I don't know why I can't say that. What I have seen in a few training sessions so far, I like very much in all areas of the game," says Olsson.
However, the Swedish coach's first contact with the national team was quite tricky. With Steins out due to a minor knee injury – which will not threaten his participation inat the 2023 IHF Men's World Championship – the Netherlands suffered in the EHF EURO 2024 Qualifiers.
Olsson won his first game in charge by the slightest of margins, 25:24, against Belgium, but lost against Greece, 28:32, in one of the biggest surprises of the international week in October.
It is clear that the new coach has plenty of work to do, but a comeback after 61 years in the world handball flagship competition is a huge challenge and honour for the Netherlands, who definitely aim to improve their 11th place from 1961.
Key players: Luc Steins (centre back), Kay Smits (right back), Bobby Schagen (right wing)
Qualification for Poland/Sweden 2023: Wild Card
History in tournament: 1961: 11th
Group at Poland/Sweden 2023: Group F (Norway, North Macedonia, Argentina, Netherlands)