As most people who follow international handball are well aware, it is never surprising that the Icelandic men’s national team wins world or European championships. But it is more surprising that, in a country well known for its strong female emancipation, Icelandic handball players have not had many good international performances in the past. However, it seems that a change is happening.
Some thought it was just a fluke that Iceland finally managed to qualify for the European Women’s Championship in 2010. This was achieved with a round-trip qualifying win over Austria . It was suspected that this may have been more due to a temporary weakness in Austrian women’s handball, particularly after Iceland lost all three matches in the group stage of the European Championship. But then it should be noted that the opponents were Russia, Montenegro and Croatia, and the losses were not with really disheartening margins.
Nevertheless, it came as a bit of a shock when the result was announced of the home game against Iceland in the qualifier against Ukraine last month. Ukraine has very strong traditions on the women’s side; indeed, Soviet dominance for many decades in the past was largely down to the strength of the Ukrainians, led by the husband-wife team of coach Turchin and team captain and world-class player Turchin . The 37-18 result was therefore truly remarkable. And the Icelanders seemed to have little trouble holding on away from home, securing a 24-24 tie.
It was known that as the team ranked in the worst performing row, Iceland should expect to be drawn in a very difficult group of the World Championship to be held in Brazil in December. And it will certainly be difficult. Although four out of six teams will qualify in each preliminary group for the following 1/8 finals, it would seem that it will take a miraculous performance by the Icelanders to qualify, now that we know the results of the draw.
The squad, which will play their matches at Santos, is led by Norway and also includes powerful new side Montenegro, ever-strong African champions Angola, Germany and China. Germany was almost a surprise qualifier after the European Championship disaster, so they will be determined for revenge. And Chinese women rose to prominence after the 2008 Olympics-related surge. So to get ahead of them of these five teams will certainly not be easy.
It should be noted that the rise of Icelandic women is unlikely to be temporary. They had teams that, in the “under 20” and “under 18” categories, did very well in the qualifying phases, even if they did not reach the final phase of the European Championships 2011. In the youth category, they lost on goal difference, having earned the same points as Spain and Croatia. In the older category, they again lost to Spain and suffered a narrow loss to Serbia, in a group played in Serbia. So the clear impression is that there are a lot of talented young players who are progressing well to senior level.
If we then get to see the same fighting spirit in the women that the men have traditionally displayed, then the Icelandic team is likely to become a crowd favorite in Brazil and wherever they compete. We wish them good luck !