At last! Spain had lost four European Men’s Handball Championship finals before Sunday – despite winning two World Championships. Now they have shaken that monkey off their backs with a perfect tournament in Croatia, where Spain successively beat the three sides that beat them in the last three of those finals: Germany in the second group stage, France in the semi-finals and Sweden in the final. Even though Spain went into the showpiece game as favourites the greatest achievement was overcoming France. Common wisdom held up “Les Experts” as the finest team of the moment but Spain turned that appraisal on its head. They were the best side.
It is a wonderful triumph in a sport that deserves more attention. Spain won its first World Handball Championship in 2005, before our basketball team claimed gold in Japan the following year. In reality, that victory in Tunisia was the beginning of this ongoing golden age of Spanish sport but handball has always been reduced to second fiddle, which is a shame. It is a spectacular sport that requires the finest physical specimens (players have to be big, strong, quick and agile) and which has enjoyed popularity in Spain although the domestic competition has known better days. When Atlético Madrid’s team ceased to exist it was a huge blow. Ciudad Real filled the void for a while but they too disappeared in 2011.
Of the 19 players that featured in the winning squad in Croatia, only seven play club handball in Spain; five of those represent Barcelona, who are in a league of their own these days. Year after year they stroll to the Spanish championship. Paco Blázquez, president of the Spanish Handball Federation (and a popular candidate to take over at the Spanish Olympic Committee when Alejandro Blanco steps down), finds himself with a paradox: a fantastic national team but a league with few fans and one team that always wins. There is a constant exodus of players to France, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Macedonia… it’s a pity. But nobody can take the joy of seeing Spain win the Euros away from us today.