The “Red Wolves” are brimming with confidence: “We are in a competition, not at Disneyland”

16 Jan. 2023

The “Red Wolves” are brimming with confidence: “We are in a competition, not at Disneyland”

Only one of the 32 teams taking part in Poland/Sweden are making their debut at the IHF Men’s World Championship. While considered underdogs due to their lack of experience and pedigree, Belgium have flourished in the tournament and secured their first win in a major international tournament, shocking Tunisia (31:29) and significantly improving their chances to progress to the main round of the competition.

The win was a testament to Belgium’s resilience and grit, but it also revealed the competitive nature of the team and their know-how. They are not a team that will be pushed over or forced to seek out wins. No, the “Red Wolves” actively take their game to their opponents, believing in their philosophy and nous.

“For some of the players, the ones born in 1990 and 1991 who are the core of the team, this team is like a family. We have been together since we were little kids, since we were 10 years old, with a dream in our heads,” says centre back Arber Qerimi.

“Some of them went to other pastures, but they came back. And we really feel good together, we are trying to display the best handball we can and it is a dream come true, especially as we wanted to showcase Belgium’s handball to the world. The journey has been long, but here we are.”

Indeed, Belgium have tried to qualify for a major tournament forever, but something was always missing. The lack of experience, injuries or stronger opponents, something always derailed their bid to appear on the big stage.

But coach Yérime Sylla always believed in his team. The former Senegal player, who represented his country as a player at the start of the 2000s, first took over Belgium in 2011 for a three-year stint. He returned for the second time between 2015 and 2018 and took over the team in October 2021.

“Since he has come here, he has told us that we will be able to qualify for the World Championship at least once. While it was always going to be hard, here we are, winning matches and delivering some good performances,” adds Qerimi.

Sylla was the driving force behind this Belgium team which lost two times each against Switzerland and Italy 14 years ago by an average margin of 6.25 goals per match. In fact, between 2009 and 2017, they only won two matches in the European Qualifiers for the IHF Men’s World Championship.

But with players getting better and better and getting experience at their clubs in stronger leagues throughout Europe, Belgium started to improve. Few expected them to eliminate Slovakia in the Qualification Europe Part 2 for Poland/Sweden 2023. But thanks to an excellent second leg at home, Belgium clinched a 57:54 aggregate win in the doubleheader.

And here they are at Poland/Sweden 2023, becoming the fan darlings and turning heads with their attractive handball.

“We are not blinded by the importance of the tournament or by our opponents. We have not come to visit Disneyland, we are confident in our team and we want to play the handball that we know and win matches. We can play really well with the team and players we have at our disposal,” says a confident Sylla.

The first test in the preliminary round in Malmö ended in a tough loss against Denmark (28:43), the most challenging start possible for a rookie at the IHF Men’s World Championship, facing a side that has not lost in 20 matches in a row at that time, the second-largest unbeaten streak ever in the competition.

But against Tunisia, Belgium felt that they could spring a surprise, despite the African’s side excellent display in friendly matches before Poland/Sweden 2023, when they were unbeaten in six matches and even secured a big win against co-hosts Poland.

Qerimi was in superb form, scoring six times and dishing three assists. At the same time, goalkeeper Jef Lettens stopped 10 shots, so Belgium were in with a chance at the break, leading 17:16. They held their ground, made some immense stops in defence and eventually claimed their first win in history in the competition (31:29).

“The win against Slovakia was amazing because it meant that we were qualified for the World Championship. But being actually here and winning a match? It really feels amazing and it has been a superb journey,” says Qerimi, a player who featured for HC PPD Zagreb in the Machineseekeer EHF Champions League in 2018/19.

With two points after two matches, Belgium are not qualified for the main round, but they can secure that place in two ways:  they either do not lose against Bahrain, or they make it through with a loss and if Tunisia do not win against Denmark.

This means chances are that they will make it to the next phase of the competition, where they are due to face Egypt and two other sides from Croatia, the United States of America and Morocco.

Yet Sylla is eyeing the bigger picture, despite refraining from the same cliché of taking it “match by match” in such an important tournament.

“The aim is to finish as high as we can in the final standings in our first participation at the IHF Men’s World Championship. If we play like this, then we can do it. And why not dream even higher? Why not dream of a place in the quarter-finals,” asks Sylla.

“Sure, it is difficult, but if we face Croatia, we have already proven we can play well against them. We only lost by three goals in the EHF EURO qualifiers last autumn. So, we will aim high,” concludes Belgium’s coach.