A huge comeback and a huge honour: Italy are back in business

17 May. 2024

A huge comeback and a huge honour: Italy are back in business

Rewind the clock a bit and Italy’s last appearance at the IHF Men’s World Championship came in 1997, when the European side ended up on the 18th place, with a single win in five matches.

Back then, one of Italy’s current most experienced players, Andrea Parisini, was only two years old and was never dreaming about qualifying for the World Championship, nevermind playing handball at a competitive level.

But now, Parisini was one of the crucial players in Italy’s superb qualification to the 2025 IHF Men’s World Championship, as the European side is back on the top stage of handball after a 28-year wait, one of the largest in history between two appearances in the world handball flagship competition.

In fact, Italy have never qualified for a major international competition since the EHF EURO 1998, which they hosted, and the odds were stacked against them for Croatia/Denmark/Norway 2025, as they also had to eliminate three teams in the Qualification Europe.

First, it was a fiery doubleheader against Türkiye in the Qualification Europe – Phase 1, when Italy delivered a fantastic comeback after conceding a 28:37 loss in the first leg, to clinch a 65:64 aggregate win. Then, Italy took two wins against Belgium, 29:25 and 33:31, on their way to a 62:56 aggregate win in the Qualification Europe – Phase 2, Part 1.

However, when Montenegro were drawn as opponents for Italy in the Qualification Europe – Phase 2, Part 2, things were even more difficult for Parisini and his teammates, especially as Montenegro had an experienced core, with players like backs Branko Vujovic and Vuko Borozan, as well as goalkeeper Nebojsa Simic.

“Even with our optimism, it was always going to be hard to beat Montenegro, because they are very experienced. Just look at how they played in the previous EURO editions or at the previous World Championships. They had the edge and we were coming after two other very difficult doubleheaders,” says Parisini.

Nevertheless, Italy never backed down and believed in their own strength. In the first leg, a packed Pala San Giacomo in Conversano-Bari saw 3,900 fans celebrate a fantastic 32:26 win, where right wing Umberto Bronzo scored 13 goals. But the qualification was not sealed yet, as the second leg in Podgorica was going to be tremendously hard for Italy to navigate.

“After the first leg, I could not sleep. I was sitting with some teammates in our rooms and talked about what happened. It was an amazing feeling, to sing the national anthem, to feel the fans close to you, everyone cheered, everyone tried to do their best and we managed to come out with an incredible win,” says Parisini.

“But we knew that the match in Podgorica was going to come and we have some young players in the squad. Montenegro were more experienced, they had the home edge and I really thought it was going to be a difficult match for all of us involved, because they had the experience on their side.”

At half-time, Italy’s nerves dissipated. They were up 17:13, therefore on the doubleheader, Ricardo Trillini’s side was up by 10 goals. It would have taken an immense comeback from Montenegro, one of the biggest in this stage of the Qualifiers over the last decades, to create something out of thin air and secure the 2025 IHF Men’s World Championship berth.

Bronzo added another eight goals, to take his overall tally to 21 over the doubleheader, while Parisini scored six of himself, as Italy not only secured the Croatia/Denmark/Norway 2025 ticket, they also beat Montenegro on their home court, 34:32, on the way to a 66:57 aggregate win.

“As the gap reached double digits, it became quite clear we were going to qualify and when that feeling hit, it was something out of this world. We went through hardships and heart-breaking losses in the past and just to revel this in, just to be here and qualify for the World Championship, man, that felt amazing,” adds Parisini.

Four years ago, in the Qualification for the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championship, Italy lost against Georgia and Romania and drew against Kosovo. Back in 2018, they lost against Romania, but beat Ukraine and the Faroe Islands, while for the 2023 IHF Men’s World Championship, they stood close against Slovenia, but eventually Italy conceded a 49:57 aggregate loss.

Now, Italy have learnt the basics, controlled the matches against Belgium and Montenegro and eventually became the only team starting in the Qualification Phase 1 to reach the final tournament at the 2025 IHF Men’s World Championship, proving everything can happen if there is a good structure in place.

“There are some young players in the squad, who really stepped up and gelled with the rest of the team. But I think the main ingredient for this success was the cohesion, the fact that we really played for each other, tried to help each other, both on and off the court. And it showed, especially in tough moments. We are truly a team and this was the reason we are so far in the competition,” says Parisini.

On 29 May, Italy will find out their opponents for the 2025 IHF Men’s World Championship, the first one to be co-hosted by three countries, Croatia, Denmark and Norway. Asked about if he was nervous to find out which teams will Italy play against, Parisini was quite sincere.

“I would play tomorrow in the World Championship, I do not like to wait so much,” joked the 29-year-old line player.

“I hope that this performance will only highlight how beautiful this sport is and make it more and more popular in Italy, because it really needs to be promoted,” concludes the line player.

Photo credit: Federazione Italiana Giuoco Handball