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Match of the Day: The wait is over, but can Japan deliver on home soil?

29 Nov. 2019

Match of the Day: The wait is over, but can Japan deliver on home soil?

Six years since they were revealed as the winning bidder back in October 2013, Japan and their women’s handball team can finally get their 2019 IHF Women’s World Championship campaign off to a start when they play Argentina in the opening game of Group D at the Park Dome in Kumamoto.

The throw-off at 15:00 is preceded by an opening ceremony which is sure to raise the expectation levels amongst the home fans and for coach Ulrik Kirkely and his Japan squad they will have to deal with the pressure which comes as hosts.

Especially in the last few months, the home nation squad have been busy in a whirlwind of promotion and media work but that all has to be quickly forgotten when they step on court against the runners-up of the Women’s South and Central American Championship.

Despite qualifying for their very first IHF Women’s World Championship back in 1962, Japan have never finished higher than seventh and since 2000, have not finished higher than 14th (2011, 2013).

Known as ‘Orihime Japan’, the hosts have done everything they can to prepare, with an intensive programme consisting of around 140 days spent in training, split between Japan (65 days) and Europe (75 days) but they will have to start in their very first game at full power as, on paper – and even Kirkely admitting himself – this clash could already be decisive in the group for qualification through to the main round.

“All teams in a World Championship are well-prepared and, of course, good,” said Kirkely, who has been in the role since 2016. “I see Sweden and Russia as the two favourites to win our group and DR Congo, Argentina, China and ourselves will have tough matches against each other for the last ticket to the main round.

“However, we will play our matches step by step, match by match. We want to keep the players’ focus in what they are doing right now. We will work hard to qualify for the next round, which is one of our goals, but we also know that this is the goal for all 24 nations at Japan 2019.”

Kirkely saw the potential of his side at the Tokyo 2020 Test Event earlier this month, where they drew with Slovenia after leading at the break and will take heart from a 27:18 (15:6) win against the South Americans in late September at the Intersport Cup in Norway.

Argentina will hope that the pressure and expectation of playing at home for Japan will prove to work in their favour and get a vital win, but their coach Eduardo Gallardo also has one eye on the future with a team packed full of potential.

“I think in a couple of years this team will make the Argentinian handball family very happy,” he said. “We dream about making our best historic finish [improving the 18th rank at Denmark 2015], but we also want to make the main round among the best 12 teams in the world – that would be superlative.”

Saturday 30 November

Group A 
Aqua Dome Kumamoto

Angola face Serbia at the Aqua Dome in Kumamoto at 15:00 in the opening match of Group A, having already qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in September at the 2019 CAHB Women’s African Olympic Qualification Tournament. With an Olympic place already in the bag and being reigning African champions, Morten Soubak’s side have direct pressure off of them but will look to rectify their worst-ever ranking at a Women’s World Championship – 19th last time out in 2017.

They take on an experienced Serbia side – missing 2013 IHF World Handball Player of the Year Andrea Lekic through injury – who finished inside the top 10 in 2017 and will look to finish even higher for at least an Olympic Qualification Tournament place.

“We watched a couple of their matches,” said Serbia right back Anđela Janjušević about their opening day opponents. “Angola are a good team, but we're ready for them. It will be challenging to guard the line player and their goalkeeper is big, but if we focus as much as possible, there will be no problem.”

Since their historic first international medal at the 2015 IHF Women’s World Championship, the Netherlands – now with new coach Emmanuel Mayonnade – have been established as one of the strongest sides in handball but have yet to raise a trophy. This year, they will be without the influential Nycke Groot, though, who stepped down from international duty. They face Slovenia at 18:00 in the second match with Uros Bregar’s side impressing in the Tokyo 2020 test event earlier this month.

The third and final game features Norway taking on Cuba. The European side have, historically, been one of the most successful sides in women’s handball but currently hold no major international titles, the same as opponents Cuba, who are looking to better their historic best ranking of 21st gained exactly 20 years ago, in 1999. 

Norway are missing a whole team of players through injury but have enough squad depth to potentially add to their World Championship medal collection, which includes three golds.

Group B 
Yamaga City Overall Gymnasium / Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium

The opening match of Group B sees South and Central American champions Brazil meeting Germany at 15:00 local time in Kumamoto. Although Brazil claimed the title of world champions in Serbia in 2013, Germany appear to have a stronger chance of starting their campaign with a victory.  

After their early elimination at their home World Championship in 2017, Germany welcomed Groener as head coach – and the team have become notably stronger, evidenced by their results in Europe. Germany have history on their side, with 10 wins out of 12 official encounters versus Brazil, however, the South American team won the last two matches against the European side. 

World champions France will be next in focus, as they meet Republic of Korea at 18:00 in Yamaga City Overall Gymnasium. The last time France and Korea met at the World Championship, in Denmark in 2015, the match saw a thrilling draw, 22:22 (11:11). France have claimed medals at all major international competitions since that date and are current world and European champions. 

Day one for Group B will close with Australia taking on Denmark in Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium at 20:30 local time. The match marks Australia’s return to the IHF Women’s World Championship, after their last participation in 2013. The Oceania nation qualified by way of a fifth-place finish at the Asian Championship. The odds are in favour of the European side, who last missed the World Championship in 2007 and have since ranked sixth or higher at every edition. 

Group C 
Yatsushiro General Gymnasium / Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium

The only debutants at the 24th IHF Women’s World Championship, Senegal, face a tough task to begin: 2012 European champions and Olympic silver medallists Montenegro. Seven years may have passed since Montenegro had their most successful year, but the team have changed little and, aside from disappointing results at both the Olympic Games and EURO in 2016, they have consistently been a threat with considerable potential. 

The experience in the team also means Montenegro are hungry for another success – but Senegal will also be eager to mark their World Championship debut with a strong performance. The clash begins at 15:00 local time in Yatsushiro General Gymnasium. 

A young but extremely promising Hungary will start their campaign at 18:00 versus Kazakhstan. It will be an interesting test for Hungary, who count on five players from the victorious 2018 Junior World Championship squad in what is a developing team – but a very impressive one nonetheless. 

Hungary’s results in younger age category events over the last two years show that the future is extremely bright, and it seems only a matter of time before they will be one of the main teams to beat. On Saturday, we will get the first hint as to exactly how far along the development is. Hungary ranked 15th at Germany 2017, while Kazakhstan were 22nd. 

As Hungary and Kazakhstan face off, another Group C encounter will be taking place in Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium. 2015 World Championship bronze medallists Romania will meet Spain at 18:00 local time, in what looks to be an interesting clash between one of the most powerful teams currently in Europe and a rebuilding one. Romania qualified for Japan 2019 thanks to their fourth-place finish at the EHF EURO 2018, where Spain ranked 12th. 

Four-time and current World Handball Player of the Year Cristina Neagu is set to be part of the Romania team but will likely be on court less than usual following her injury in December at the EHF EURO 2018. 

Group D 
Park Dome Kumamoto

Following the opening ceremony and first game of the hosts, 2016 Olympic gold medallists’ Russia play People’s Republic of China at 18:00 with Ambros Martin filling the big shoes of former coach Evgeny Trefilov, who is a legend in Russian handball, having won numerous World Championships and two Olympic medals.

Martin’s team takes on China who welcome new Danish coach Heine Ernst Jensen. With a large-scale turnaround of players since 2017, when they finished 22nd, they face a tough test in their opening match.

Sweden take on Democratic Republic of Congo in the third and final match of Group D’s opening day with the African bronze medallists appearing in just their third-ever Women’s World Championship after finishing 20th in 2013 and 24th in 2015. Henrik Signell has been able to announce the influential Isabelle (Bella) Gullden in his squad after the centre back gave birth to her first child in July.

“As always, Sweden rely on the team performance and team spirit,” said Sweden’s line player Anna Lagerquist before the championship. “We all work for each other and help each other to succeed – we have a good mix with very experienced players and young unafraid ones.”


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Photo: Germany 2017