04 May. 2023
Australia have not made the final line-up for the IHF Men's World Championship since 2013, after finishing five consecutive editions of the world handball flagship competition on the 24th place.
Since then, they have entered the AHF Asian Men's Handball Championship three times, finishing on the 11th place in 2018, on the 12th place in 2020 and on the 16th place in 2022, with the last edition seeing them hit by injuries and an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the team, which really hampered their performance.
But handball is once again in the spotlight for Australia after the International Olympic Committee has awarded the rights to host the 2032 Olympic Games to Brisbane in July 2021, marking a return to the country for the first time since Sydney 2000. Sure, there is still less than a decade to prepare, but the seeds have been sown by Australia, with a clear focus on the competition.
Usually, plans are made in the short or medium term. Still, Australia had to start from somewhere. The fourth edition of the IHF Men's Emerging Nations Championship was the perfect place to do so, returning to the competition for the first time since its inaugural edition in 2015.
"This is a great initiative by the IHF to have this tournament taking place. It is so important for us to be in this tournament because we are facing teams that are, more or less, on the same level we are now. Therefore, it pushes us to get better and better and to the next level of the competition. We do not get too much game experience with the Australia national team. So this is so important for us," said Australia's coach Taip Ramadani.
After finishing 12th at Kosovo 2015, Australia improved their finishing position at Bulgaria 2023, underlining their patient approach and their desire to improve, with the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games being the target.
While they might have lost the game against Cyprus in the group phase (21:24), the gap between the two sides and the experience gulf between them is surely big, as the European side had players in their squad who have been competing in the last years in the European club competitions.
But Australia did win against the Republic of Moldova (25:22), and against Andorra (32:19), on their way to the sixth place at the 2023 IHF Men's Emerging Nations Championship while also delivering one player to the All-Star team of the competition – line player Karl Warrener.
"Handball has been getting more attention now in Australia. People are calling, wanting to play handball. More children are getting involved in handball. We are starting to develop some handball schools. And I am really optimistic that we are going to do really well. Not only to have a great team but to build the infrastructure needed to succeed in Australia," adds Ramadani.
"IHF have been working with us to develop our coaching education, helping the coaching improve and building this infrastructure. It is vital for us to have this, not only for Brisbane 2032 but also to leave a legacy beyond that as well."
Of course, the base of the pyramid, with grassroots handball and developing a healthy structure, is crucial, but without role models at the highest level, few nations can really inspire others to take up a sport that has little tradition and is down the pecking order in a country like Australia, where rugby, Australian football, cricket and football are hugely popular.
Yet at Bulgaria 2023, Australia had some experienced players in their roster, like left back Caleb Gahan, right back Timothy Anderson and line player Karl Warrener, who serve as role models for the younger players in the squad. Others, like the McCourt brothers, are plying their trade in Europe, learning the basics of handball in Norway.
"The players featuring in Europe are important to us because they bring more experience into Australia's national team. They play much more regular competition at a higher level. But we also count a lot on our local players as well because we work more face-to-face with them. And it's important that we manage to balance the expats that are playing overseas and the local players," says Ramadani.
With Australia featuring at the 2023 IHF Men's Emerging Nations Championship and club team Sydney Uni being a constant presence in the last editions of the IHF Men's Super Globe, Australian handball has, at least, established a presence in international competitions.
Now, the focus is to grow even bigger and, why not, to have a test run at the IHF Men's World Championship over the next editions to gain some much-needed experience for Brisbane 2032.
"My aim is to return where we belong. The World Championship would be a dream, and if anyone can help us in that direction, we'd love to talk to them and hear from them," concludes Ramadani.