Thursday, April 21, 2005

The “Marco Polo’s from Canada

From the February 2005 French HandAction Magazine (I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in this translation.)

The “Marco Polo’s from Canada

The Canadians rowed, rowed… before reaching the promised land: Tunisia, where they had a rude welcome, but also one rich in learning. They are admirable pioneers that will come back stronger the next time…

Vincent Levesque, Marcellin Pelletier, Luc Pellerin… The players have names that sound French, but they speak the language a little differently when it comes to Handball. “pointage” for “nombre of buts” (number of goals), “lancer de penaltie” for “penaltie” (penalty shot), or “echappees” for “montees de balle” (turn-over). They play for Champlain, for Chaudieres in Quebec or for Celtique in Montreal, and they played in the World Championships for the first time since 1978. The result of having won the Bronze medal at the Pan-American Championships and having put some distance between themselves and Greenland and United States, the North American representatives in 2001 and 2003.

Lilliputians of Handball, but they are “armed with determination and a new pair of shoes,” as they noted with humor on the official site of their Federation, which is practically the only source of information on their Handball adventure, since only two local reporters from Champlain traveled with them! This lack of coverage is mainly the result of being drowned out by Hockey.

The 14 Quebecois and 2 Albertans (the only Anglophones) had to make sacrifices for their passion and to be a member of the team which traveled to Tunisia. Each player had to pay 3,000 Canadian Dollars for gym time, heating, equipment, and especially two warm up tournaments prior to Tunisia (around 10 matches). Fortunately, equipment was given to them at the last moment, but still to play at the World Championships is a luxury for the young players (23 is the average age), a majority of whom are students.

Like Geoffroy Bessette-Cosette, the little left wing, and hero of the Angola game with 6/8 shooting. A good pioneer, Geoffroy went to get a little French culture for one season at Montelimar, Ligue Nationale 1 (which is the French 3rd Division) in 2003-2004. This season, Charles Barriteau plays for Lille/Villeneuve d’Ascq (2nd Division) and averages 1 goal/game while Alexis Bertand is an essential part of the Ivry reserve team (3rd Division). “By going to France we not only improve our Handball knowledge, but also learn the defects of our own program. The National selection started again 3 years ago, and we had 9 clubs in our elite division and a second division. Some teams are comparatively similar to the French 3rd Division, but there are only a few good match ups in our league.”

To define a little better what Canadian Handball is, one should know that the record attendance at the National Championship Final is 1000 spectators, but usually crowds are closer to 50 or 100 people. In effect, it is difficult to fill the stands when the matches are on Sunday morning. “It’s the gym time that we are given.”

Under the influence of Handball demons (8 hours of practice/week for these amateurs) and of their sorcerer, Mohamed Benkreira, (who coached at Villeneuve d’Ascq from 1995-97 and then was the National Team Coach for Qatar for 3 years), Canada failed to beat Angola, the 3rd African representative, losing 26-27 in their final match. And this was after the rude beating by Denmark (18-52) and France (16-44), 31 years after the last Franco-Canadian duel, where France had some difficultly, winning 22-15.

“France is our Handball reference,” explains Mohamad Benkreira, the coach. “Before the World Championships, I sent 6 or 7 players to the Paris metro area, for them to meet with Constanti (French Federation National Team Director) in his office, at the Federation. Then I overwhelmed them with tapes of France’s most recent matches.” Mohammed doesn’t count his time, nor his money for this team. Paid 8,000 dollars/year, this Algerian is also an adjunct professor at the University of Montreal. His first goal is to get more international matches, because he knows that Canada has to quit playing Handball in the Americas, and travel the globe to seek matches without worrying about negative results.

“One has to absorb, absorb all information,” underlines Geoffroy, a fan of Michael Guigou (French Nat’l Team Left Wing). “And we will talk of our experience upon our return to convince our sponsors.” Geoffroy doesn’t forget that it is him and his teammates that will go door-to-door when they return, with tapes from the World Championships.


My thoughts on this article and the US prospects for 2007:

It doesn’t take a genius to see that if the US is going to qualify for the 2007 World Championships, we will need to beat the Canadians. (It is unrealistic to consider beating Argentina and Brazil—That gap is way to wide) And one might argue that the gap between the US and Canada has widened substantially. Despite the plastering the Canadians got at the World Championships, that experience and the preparation that went with it, is invaluable. If they keep their team intact for 2 years (they’re young so it might be feasible) and they keep sending players to get experience in France they will continue to improve.

Meanwhile, the US program is at best, standing in place. How can we close this gap by Summer 2006? Well, without a combination of better players and some decent preparatory team training prior to PANAM championships I don’t see it happening. Maybe there’s some American Passport holders out there that can help us throw a “Hail Mary.” The mid-term solution to a better program is to send some promising players overseas like the Canadians, Brazilians and Argentines. Or start up a full time National Team training program—assuming of course funding appears out of nowhere for this. In the long term, there are a multitude of possible steps that could be taken based on the overall development path that is chosen.


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