BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Maybe it’s time to take note of the continental drift

No rugby.

No Premier League football. No ‘proper’ GAA games for another full week. Not even an American football game to divert us from the descending dread of another week in work come Sunday evening. Jeez.

As Bjork might put it, it’s oh so quiet on the sports front this weekend.

Or is it? Maybe it’s our isolation on this windswept rock but we sometimes tend to forget that there’s a whole other world out there for whom Heineken Cup, Allianz Leagues and even the Premier League are off their radar. What’s that old saying? No matter how great your triumphs or how tragic your defeats, one billion Chinese couldn’t care less.

We don’t have to crane our necks all the way to the Far East for evidence of that. In a week when David Cameron sought to highlight differences between Britain and the continent to the fore, it is illuminating to think that our European cousins should be engrossed in sporting pursuits of which we in Ireland and the UK know nothing.

For two weeks now, in four venues across Spain, 24 countries have been vying for the right to be called World Handball champions. The matter will be decided in front of over 16,000 people on Sunday at the Palau Saint Jordi stadium in Barcelona when the last of 84 games is called.

Do not doubt, this is big news.

On Wednesday in Zaragoza a French side that had claimed the last two world titles as well as the Olympic gold medal in London fell to a Croatian team that has long been a perennial threat in the last of the tournament’s quarter-finals and the Croatian media was effusive on how their men had “destroyed” the game’s destroyers.

The lead story on the L’Equipe website that same evening led with the downfall of a team whose dominance had mirrored that of their footballing compatriots in the late 1990s and early noughties. The headline lamented the ‘End of an Era’ and the loss made the front page of the print edition the next morning too.

Handball. Water Polo. Ice Hockey. They may not float boats here but they are all big deals on the continent. Football remains undisputed king but all of these sports are large and popular enough to support vibrant professional leagues and their ambitions have grown exponentially in recent years.

Ice hockey games have been moved to football stadiums in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden in recent years with crowds of 50,000 and 77,000 watching games in Nuremberg and Gelsenkirchen. Others have been played amidst the magnificent ruins of the Roman Coliseum in Pula, Croatia.

Handball hasn’t been left behind.

More than 36,000 Danes watched the national cup final between AG København and Bjerringbro-Silkeborg Elitehåndbold at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium in 2011 but it is the regular footfall rather than the peak, box-office figures that make handball the second most popular sport in Europe.

“It’s absolutely massive on the continent,” says Lucas O Ceallachain who is general manager at the Irish Olympic Handball Association. “For Irish people, the best way of explaining it is to compare it to rugby. It’s not the biggest sport everywhere but it is huge in a lot of places and the Champions League final four in Cologne attracts 30,000 people every year. The place is packed out for two days.”

At least 20 countries are able to support a viable professional league, some both male and female. Some players draw salaries of about €5,000 a month, others are operating in a different stratosphere and none more so than Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen who is on a reported €1m per annum at Paris Saint Germain.

“There’s very few rugby players on that,” as O Ceallachain put it.

Like their footballing arm, the French side has had moolah flung at it by the new Middle Eastern owners. Ten superstars have been drafted thus far turning a club that had been battling for survival into one that is now expected to challenge Montpellier for the league title, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Most clubs rely on their local authorities and small businesses for funding but how is it that run-of-the-mill cities and towns across Europe can support sporting professional teams of all sorts and sizes annually at a time of such economic constraints?

Take Croatia for example, a country with a population marginally smaller than ours and one where local authorities invest a couple of million euro each per year in clubs that represent them in various national leagues. Compare that with our situation here where GAA, rugby and soccer clubs are dangling over a fiscal cliff.

Maybe, just maybe, we should be paying more attention to what they do on the continent.

And how they do it too.

*rackobrien@gmail.com *Twitter: @Rackob

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