Russia planning to host fully-fledged international handball tournament

SEHA–Gazprom League matches funded by Gazprom are resuming in Russia. In the 2021/22 quarterfinals, teams from Belarus, Hungary, Slovakia and even ex-Yugoslavia met. Two teams represent Macedonia and Croatia, one does Serbia. Realnoe Vremya talks about the tournament that can be the only next season where teams Belarus and Russia will play with Europe.

Only Zaporizhzhia’s Motor is out

The current season was interrupted because of the special military operation. After that, the European federation started to demand to get rid of the general sponsor, Gazprom, and a Belarusian team from Brest. As a result, both remains, but only one competitor — Zaporizhzhia’s Motor — “got lost.” The team already announced its desire to play in the second German Bundesliga in the future, Belarusian player of Chekhov Bears Andrey Klimovets went there too. The management of the SEHA–Gazprom League likely counts on the teams that stayed in the championship when creating the potential division the West. Meanwhile, the East division was created with four teams of Belarus and Russia. It is Meshkov Brest — almost the unchangeable competitor of the SEHA–Gazprom League — as well as SKA from Minsk, Masheka from Mogilev, plus, Russian CSKA, Neva from Petersburg and two “bear” teams — from Chekhov and Perm.

It is surprising that Gazprom is the main foreigner, Russian teams rarely competed in this league except for Moscow Sparta that played there after it was created. Now it returns to the number of competitors of the League after being renamed as CSKA in 2020 (other surprising things happen in Russian handball).

Hopes pinned on Serbia

Most teams have always represented Serbia. It is current Voivodina and Partisan, Dynamo and Spartak as well as Željezničar, Metaloplastika, Radnički and Crvena Zvezda. In other words, if it doesn’t work with other countries of former Yugoslavia, the West division can be formed (it is logical to call it this way if there is the East) from teams of a friendly country. By the way, it already participated in the Solidarity Games in Kazan. Hungarian Veszprem is also a regular of the SEHA–Gazprom League, and government contacts say that we can count on Hungary.

As for the other countries, sadly, Northern Macedonia (current competitors Vardar and Eurofarm, there was one more team last year) and Croatia (current competitors Zagreb and Nexe) can face problems at state level because among all former Yugoslavia members only Serbia is providing support to Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are being neutral.

By the way, the Bosnians too used to compete in the SEHA–Gazprom League (Borac, Bosna, Izviđač, Sloga). There was also Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia, but it is hard to rely on them in the current situation. On the other hand, North Macedonian Eurofarm is already ready to play at home against Meshkov Brest on 25 August, and the presence of team Belarus in the tournament doesn’t yet stop Macedonia, Slovakia and Croatia. And yes, the European Handball Federation permitted to continue the competition.

Besides them, there is an interesting option with China. The Celestial Kingdom is actively developing relations with Europe trying to raise the level of team sports, a clearly weak link in the sports hierarchy of China. The country already debuted in the League in 2019 with a team of the Beijing sport university that played during the season and coronavirus broke out later. Now China already planned Fenix women’s team will perform in the Russian Championship, while the men’s club with a lyrical name Beijing Stork will in the men’s championship of Belarus.

Why is the tournament great? All is paid

In any case, there is some variation when choosing teams for the tournament, which is a sinecure for the competitors. To start with, the League itself cares about logistics and meals, which is important for these teams that cannot be called well-off as well as the sport itself. Only Vezsprem, Vardar, Zagreb and Meshkov Brest comply with the Champions League level. The Hungarian club finished fourth last season. But the post-COVID-19 situation complicates international communication. The 2020 season isn’t forgotten yet when many teams didn’t compete in European competitions or teams withdrew during the tournament. And the division of the competitors into two subgroups Russia — Belarus, the Balkan states — Eastern Europe anyway looks more comfortable. And in this respect, the tournament with the places of matches that are known in advance is much more convenient that the surprises of the draw, which are characteristic of other European tournaments.

The resumption of the SEHA–Gazprom League is the first real fact of the breakthrough of the international blockade. It is like Vladimir Lenin and Atuturk who established links in 1922 on the political stage, and in 1924, the USSR national team played the first international match with Turkey. Unlike the Solidarity Games held in Kazan with national teams with weak background or youth teams, the first match of the resumed SEHA–Gazprom League attracted teams Hungary and Slovakia with the strongest teams, foreigners from unfriendly countries at the moment. The press service of the League answered Realnoe Vremya’s journalist’s questions if the participation of foreign clubs was planned like before, if this international tournament can be called fully-fledged saying “Yes,” and “Of course, yes!”

Cooperation with China in handball

It is necessary to note that this year Russian companies demonstrated how one shouldn’t rely on the honesty of old and seemingly tried partners. For instance, Schalke 04 unilaterally terminated a sponsorship agreement that was in force for about 15 years. The website of the club isn’t available in Russian as one of the main languages, while only fans have numerous T-shirts with the logo of Gazprom.

On the other hand, in reply to unfriendly actions of former western counteragenta, it is necessary to note the variability of the Russian Handball Federation as one of the key partners of the SEHA–Gazprom League today. Realising that Western and North European countries are more hostile to Russia, the country’s championship started to invite Asian (China) and African (Zambia) athletes. Meanwhile, the international federation started to demonstrate signs of neutrality in the current situation. It not only gave the green light to resume the SEHA–Gazprom League but also warned head of the Norwegian handball federation Kore Lio for repeated demands to exclude Russia from the international and European handball federations.

Jaudat Abdullin

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The author’s opinion does not necessarily coincide with the position of Realnoe Vremya’s editorial board.