Amid ongoing controversy and questions about the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is quietly preparing to host another popular international sporting competition.
Two dozen of the best international handball teams will meet in Doha early in the new year for the 24th Men’s Handball World Championship.
The tournament will be held from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1, and marks the second time the World Championship will take place in the Middle East – and the first time it will be in the Gulf.
Qatar, whose bid was selected over those from Norway, Poland and France, has built three brand-new arenas in preparation for the championship, and tournament organizers have high hopes for the upcoming event.
In a speech during July’s draw for the tournament groups, International Handball President Dr. Hassan Moustafa expressed his support for Qatar, saying “I am sure that this will be the best Handball World Championship ever.”
The tournament follows several other international athletic events held in Qatar in recent years, including the FINA World Swimming Championships and the 2011 Asian Football Cup.
Local officials are maintaining the momentum by bidding to host future events, such as the 2019 World Athletics Championships, and are expanding the country’s sports hub, the Aspire Zone.
The international tournaments are seen by the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) as a way of attracting more visitors to the country and the QTA has said it plans to spend more money marketing the nation as a sports tourism destination.
The test run
With just a few months before the start of the tournament, the Qatar Handball Association continues to hammer out logistics through a series of club tournaments.
Most recently, the draw for the 17th Asian Clubs’ League Championship was announced Wednesday.
Ten teams from the Middle East will meet in Doha from Nov. 29 to Dec. 8 in one of the final tune-ups for players before January’s World Championship. Three Qatari club teams will join teams from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Jordan in the tournament.
This tournament follows September’s IHF Super Globe championship, another club competition that was also held in Qatar. While neither tournament features national teams, it gives players the opportunity to experience the venues in which the World Championship will be held. Moustafa said:
“We will see big handball stars from all over the world, competing for the crown of the clubs in Qatar. All participating teams, coaches and delegations are full of anticipation for the IHF Super Globe and a big number of participating players will return to Doha in January 2015.”
State-of-the-art arenas in Lusail and Al Sadd will be the home of the Asian Clubs’ League Championship and will also host matches come January.
Lusail Multipurpose Hall, the exterior of which is made of colored glass representing sand, sea and pearls, holds more than 15,000 people and covers 45,000 square meters. Al Sadd Sports Hall looks far more like a traditional arena and can seat 7,700 fans.
But both arenas pale in comparison to the newly constructed Qatar Handball Association Complex, located just west of Qatar University. It was the site of the IHF Super Globe championship and will be the main location for the World Championships.
Though the arena holds just 5,500 spectators, it also contains presidential and executive lounges, two training halls, accommodations for up to 60 players, a medical center, swimming pool and QHA’s administrative and media offices.
As was evident during the IHF Super Globe championship, which organizer Amhed Al-Shaabi called “the perfect warm-up” for the World Championship, the close access to parking gives fans a place to gather before and after the games. In the Qatar Handball Association Complex’s parking lots, it seemed tailgating had made its way to a handball tournament.
Philipp Enders, the head coach of Australia’s Count Sydney University, is among the fans of the Qatar Handball Association Complex. After the 7th-place game in the IHF Super Globe, he spoke of the improvement he’s seen in Qatar’s handball venues over the past five years.
“The improvement that we have seen this year is quite significant,” Enders said. “Staff is probably three to four the amount of manpower that was here in previous years. Each year we’ve seen an improvement in the venue … It’s absolutely exceptional. It’s amazing.”
Sydney’s left-winger Diego Llorente Llamazares was just as complimentary. Emotional after a close loss, however, he was a bit more blunt.
“When we were walking up going to have our first training … we just looked over the window and it was like ‘Jesus Christ, this is the stadium,’” Llorente said. “I wish I could play here everyday.”
The draw for the bi-annual World Championship was determined in mid-July, and it doesn’t appear to be an easy path to the final for Qatar.
They’ll be joining defending world champions Spain in Group A with Slovenia, Belarus, Brazil and Chile, but the draw could’ve been worse. Under the rules of the World Championship, the host country gets to choose the group in which they’ll compete.
“This is the most challenging World Championship ever,” Qatar head coach Valero Rivera told QHF. “All groups are very competitive and it was a hard choice for us. Finally, we decided to pick Group A, because it is our dream to proceed to the next round, and we see this as the best route for us.”
Rivera chose the group in part to avoid dangerous teams from France and Sweden. Group C, which also includes Algeria, Czech Republic, Egypt and the UAE, is considered to be a “Group of Death,” a term typically associated with the FIFA World Cup. France won the 2012 Olympic gold medal, while Sweden grabbed silver.
Group B consists of Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Macedonia, Tunisia and Olympic bronze medalist Croatia. Group D features Argentina, Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia.
The tournament begins with group play, in which each team will play every other team in its group, Round-Robin style. Each team will collect three points for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a loss. The four teams in each group with the highest overall point totals will advance to the knockout stage. Eliminated clubs will participate in a consolation tournament.
Knockout games will begin on Jan. 25, and the semifinals will be held on Jan. 30. The World Championship final will take place on Feb. 1.
France is currently the favorite to win the entire championship at 5/2 odds – yes, handball gambling odds exist – while Denmark checks in at 3/1 odds and Spain finds itself with 13/4 odds. Qatar has the fifth-best odds of nabbing the title at 18/1.
Qatar’s best finish at a Handball World Championship was a 16th-place finish in 2003. More recently, the national squad finished 20th at last year’s tournament. In fact, 2015 marks only the fifth time Qatar has qualified for the championship.
There may be some reason for hope, though. Qatar capped off a dominating performance in the 2014 Asian Games with a 24-21 over host nation South Korea. The Qataris rolled through the group stage with a 3-0 record and a +43 goal differential. Qatar knocked off fellow World Championship qualifier UAE 27-15 in the group stage and beat Iran 29-21 in the semifinal.
Qatar’s previous best finish at the World Asian Games was a second-place finish in 2006.
Al-Shaabi spoke glowingly after the win.
“Congratulations to this great team,” he said, according to QHA. “Qatar deserves this title (and) we all can be proud of this team.”
The Qataris also had an impressive performance in the Asian Men’s Handball Championship in January 2014. The team went 5-0 in the group stage with a +77 goal differential. They captured the championship after a pair of one-goal wins over Iran and Bahrain in the semifinals and finals, respectively.
The handball in Europe, however, is at an entirely different level and it will prove difficult for coach Rivera – who was the 2013 IHF World Coach of the Year and led Spain to a World Championship before accepting the Qatari job – to find success.
“Another historic day for Qatar and Qatar handball,” Rivera said after the World Asian Games win. “I am so proud to lead this team. Those gold medals at the Asian Games will boost our confidence and ambitions for the 2015 World Championship in Doha. My team has shown great character and will throughout the whole competition like it already did during the Asian championship in Bahrain … Our full focus will be 100 percent on the preparation on the World Championship on home ground.”
Even if Qatar doesn’t make it far in the bracket, Dr. Thani Abdulrahman Al-Kuwari, director general of Qatar’s 2015 Organizing Committee, recognizes the importance this tournament has for Qatar’s future in the international sports landscape.
“We know what hosting this prestigious event means for both our nation and for the sport of handball,” Al-Kuwari said to QHF. “Qatar is eager to showcase our enthusiasm for this sport to the world, and demonstrate our professionalism in organising large-scale sports events. Qatar 2015 will be an important milestone in the development of handball locally, regionally and internationally.”
For many, Qatar’s chances of winning this tournament are still in question. The country’s ability to host a successful tournament, however, doesn’t appear to be in doubt.