Milestone Madeira: The long road to the foundation of the EHF

In this extract from the book ’25 Years EHF’ to be published on the occasion of the 25th anniversary, Erik Eggers explains the long and history of the foundation of a European continental federation.

The vision of a united handball Europe was still a long way off – compared with other sports, in any case. In football, the interests of European national associations have been represented by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) since 1955. The first continental tournament took place in 1960.

Track and field athletes had their first European Championships as early as 1934, while the European Athletic Association (EAA) has been operating as an institution since 1969/70. The European Handball Federation (EHF) was hence a latecomer when it was created in Berlin on 17 November 1991.

This late date appears all the more curious as the idea of a European federation had already been on the agenda of a European handball for more than three decades. 

It had been the Yugoslav Handball Federation that had proposed to establish a European Handball Federation at the IHF Congress of Liège on 23-24 September 1960. 

The then IHF Secretary General Albert Wagner defused this “bomb”, as the sports magazines called it, by putting forth the weighty argument that this would create a “state in the state” of the International Federation. After all, the World Championships were nothing but European title contests anyway, Wagner reasoned.

The background

In 1960, of the IHF’s 24 members only Japan, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina were non-European nations. Over the years, however, the balance of powers shifted enormously in the world federation. By 1972, Europe, with its 24 member federations, only had a very slim majority left among the 47 IHF members.
In the 1980s, Africa and Asia gained even more influence. When the IHF Congress 1992 convened in Barcelona, Europe, with 42 out of 129 members, only had a share of about 30 percent of all votes in the International Handball Federation. Meanwhile, the other continents had already set up their own organisations to look after their respective interests – Africa in 1973, Asia in 1976, and Panamerica in 1977. 

Calls for a European federation and a continental tournament hence became increasingly vociferous. But the numerous attempts undertaken after the 1974 Congress in Jesolo, Italy, to bundle European interests in a European federation all came to nothing, even though the establishment of a European continental federation was in fact the logical answer to the globalisation of handball, as the Dane Erik Larsen noted in 1974. He predicted it would be achieved before the end of the 1970s: “My tip: the summer of 1979.” But he erred.

Congress calls for creation of European federation

 In 1976, at the initiative of the German federation Deutscher Handballbund (DHB), an informal body was created, consisting of DHB President Thiele, Quarez (France), Dimmer (Luxembourg) and Paulsen (Denmark), to explore potential options with the federations from the Eastern bloc. In 1979, even a “Congress” of West European nations met in Luxembourg.
In 1981, the same Congress resolved in Copenhagen to create an EHF in London in 1982. But a lot of time had yet to pass. “Europe needs its own federation” – was the conclusion of the 1980 Congress held in Moscow, as reported by the Handballwoche magazine. 

How complex the balance of powers was, was highlighted by the debate on the politically sensitive issue of the admission of Palestine to the IHF, which was finally carried by a coalition of East European federations, Asia and Africa.

The Asian representatives moreover almost succeeded in adding Israel to the Asian continent (which would actually have meant the end of Israeli handball). The rest of the world was certainly no longer willing to recognise the traditional, leading role of the Europeans based on their stronger  performance. 

Continental vice presidents but still no European federation

“Against the backdrop of increasing popularity of handball in the countries of Asia, Africa and America, which in Moscow resulted in the election of IHF Vice Presidents from these continents to the Council and the Executive, Europeans will have no choice but to launch their own federation to better safeguard their own interests,” was the conclusion of Handballwoche. 
The resolve to found such an organisation already existed: “In separate deliberations of the Western nations on the one hand and of friends of handball in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe on the other, the will to take this increasingly inevitable step has already become quite clear. 

As a result of the Moscow IHF Congress, it will not be long before the first concrete steps in this direction will be taken, as the strongest performing handball nations of the world will not want to lose control over their own affairs.“ But even in the 1980s Europe was not yet homogeneous enough to establish an umbrella federation. 

The pressure to act, especially in the IHF‘s socialist member nations, was not strong enough yet. “At that time, the East European federations enjoyed a very strong representation in the bodies of the IHF, the global federation,” recalls Karl Güntzel from Switzerland, who at the time served as Secretary of the European working group, an informal predecessor of the EHF. 

But other nations also had something to lose. The breakthrough that had been hoped for had also been thwarted by Scandinavian functionaries, who feared that on creation of a European federation they would be set to lose key positions in the IHF.

Fall of the Iron Curtain brings breakthrough

Representative bodies hence remained informal until the end of the 1980s. Both the West Europeans and the East Europeans continued the practice of gathering before IHF Congresses for coordination. According to Güntzel, the West was represented by the Swede Staffan Holmqvist, Berhard Thiele (GER) and himself, the East by the President of Deutscher Handball Verband (DHV), Georg Herrmann, Jaroslav Mraz from Czechoslovakia, and the Russian Vladimir Kriwtschow. 

“There were a number of meetings, but nothing of an official nature,” Güntzel recalls. It was an attempt to merge the interests of the two large political blocs in Europe. But this did not always prove possible. It was only the end of the East-West conflict in the late 1980s that changed everything. “Without the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foundation of the EHF would not have been possible,” said Güntzel.

The idea of a European federation to represent common interests had been floated once again in 1985 and in 1987, recalls the present EHF Secretary General Michael Wiederer, who as ÖHB delegate witnessed political developments, their impact on sports, and the conflicts. 

It was only in1989, though, that the vision became more realistic, as three representatives each of Western Europe and Eastern Europe met in France to explore the possibility of establishing a continental umbrella organisation. 

Nations reach consensus in Madeira

The actual history of the EHF started only at the 23rd IHF Congress in Madeira, which was held from 23 to 25 October 1990. At that time, a heated debate had flared up between the European nations and the other continents about the future system of WCh qualifications. 

While the rest of the world advocated the continuation of B and C World Championships, the Europeans wanted to determine their participants in the future by means of European Championship tournaments.

“At that time it emerged once again that the voices of the Europeans were no longer sufficiently heard,” Wiederer recalls. “And so it was decided: we are now going to create a European Federation.” 
“Interests have developed in different directions. In terms of rules, Europe differs quite a lot from Africa,“ said Hans-Jürgen Hinrichs, at the time President of Deutscher Handballbund (DHB).

On the last day of the IHF Congress in Funchal, the Swede Holmqvist and the Swiss national Güntzel announced that a European umbrella organisation, the EHF, would be formed in the first half of 1991. 

This made Madeira the most important milestone on the road to the long overdue foundation of the EHF. 

about me
Erik Eggers is a German freelance journalist and sports historian, who has reported on handball since 2002 for publications including Spiegel Online, Die Zeit and Handball Inside. He has authored a number of books chronicling the history of handball. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the EHF, Eggers was commissioned by the EHF to write a definitive history of the federation. His book '25 Years EHF' will be released on 17 November 2016 at the EHF Congress in St. Wolfgang.