Is Finnish handball a hopeless case? Few league teams and a lack of players are chronic problems – national team coach Tomas Westerlund wants more people to move to Sweden early

New season, same worrying situation. Six teams will start in the FM series in handball. The movement towards more league teams is slow – and is the best solution for the players to move early to Sweden?

Is women’s handball in Finland at an eternal impasse?

Autumn after autumn, the same theme is on the wallpaper as the association calls journalists to a press conference before the start of the FM series. Too few league teams and too thin a player base is the chronic problem that cannot be overcome.

For the fourth season in a row, six teams line up on the starting line. At the beginning of the summer, there was a sideways movement when BK-46 stepped back to the highest level at the same time as Pargas IF threw in the towel due to a lack of players.

– It is clear that it is very difficult, says the association’s operations manager Päivi Mitrunen.

Within a time frame of a couple of years, it is realistic to have eight teams in the FM series, Mitrunen thinks.

– It is a great pity that we are without a team from the Turku area now, but within a couple of years I think they will be back. Cocks is also betting on the girls’ side in Riihimäki. And then I hope for Achilles in Borgå and Atlas in Vantaa. There they rebuild the business.

Pargas IF played in the highest league last year, but chose to bow out.

Image: Arash Matin / Yle

The women’s national team’s coach Tomas Westerlund throws in a but in this discussion.

– First eight and eventually ten teams would be appropriate. It would certainly have motivated the players not to face the same team so many times in a season, but if we are talking ten teams in the series, it is a period of at least four to five years.

– But it must not be the case that teams are started made up of 17-18 year olds. Then it goes like in Pargas when players are about to start studying and move.

Many retire early

Finland is a blueberry in handball. In total, there are approximately 4,000 registered players throughout the country – a number that exposes the fragility of the sport.

Westerlund works in parallel with the national team in H43 in Lund. There, the situation is the opposite with great interest.

– In Malmö and Lund and the surrounding area in Skåne, I would think that there are more players than in the whole of Finland.

– We have a big problem with the number of players in Finnish handball. You cannot hide the fact that we need more players and teams in the women’s league. It is hoped that the players in the younger cohorts will continue to play when they get older and increase the breadth.

Dicken celebrates his gold in handball.
Anna Broman (in the middle) was a prominent figure in Dicken for many years, but now the champions’ captain has retired.

Image: Matti Matikainen/Newspix24

Everyone mentions the problem with young players who stop playing handball early. According to Mitrunen, there are plenty of players in various junior teams right now, but the thousand-euro question is how handball will succeed in keeping them in a series where no one makes money.

– It demands a lot from the clubs. Good coaches, training, matches and activities are needed for these players to continue with handball and not invest in anything else.

Hopeless case?

Both Mitrunen and Westerlund mention Emma Aarnio and Ellen Voutilainen as examples of how Finnish players can advance with their handball.

Aarnio and Voutilainen moved to Sweden early, went to handball high school and have continued to study in parallel with playing in the Swedish handball league. KyIF coach Birgitta Lindholm talked about similar thoughts last fall.

– From a national team perspective, it is a positive way to go. I also hope that more people would do this after high school: dare to take a chance and see how far it goes. The flip side of that is, of course, the risk that we lose another team in our series if we can’t add new players, says Westerlund.

Ellen Voutilainen plays in Skuru.
Ellen Voutilainen is Finland’s best player on the women’s side. She lives in Nackaklubben Skuru IK.

Image: Cracchiolo/Shutterstock/All Over Press

There is potential in the 2004 national team, Westerlund thinks. He, in turn, saw the 2006 national team when it played its first tournament in Sweden.

– There we are quite far behind the top in Europe. We must be able to work very hard.

Does it ever feel hopeless to work on this?

– If I compare to how it looked when I last worked in Finnish handball as the men’s national team captain in the 90s, there is a completely different organization now with camps for juniors in high school age and a handball academy during the high school years. More investment is needed, but a long-term plan is needed.

– More training and good education of the players can lift us. To take steps internationally and even reach Sweden, you have to train more and be stronger.

Speaks for a slower pace of study

When I ask the same question to Päivi Mitrunen, she laughs and admits that the feeling can sneak up on her, but then she mentions similar parameters to Westerlund.

Steps are being taken, but they are small and it’s really not possible to pour in large numbers of new players in the blink of an eye.

Mitrunen says that, for example, she would like to see more active people choose to slow down their study pace a bit to be able to give handball a chance.

– It is difficult to tell someone that they do not need to study at such a fast pace, and it is tricky especially on the women’s side. They set high standards for themselves and want to make everything perfect.

It is super important that we get to showcase our national team players to our juniors

― Tomas Westerlund

A positive detail in this context is that a gloomy trend, to say the least, is broken this autumn. Finland’s women’s national handball team has not played a competitive match on Finnish soil since 2015, but in November it will be a match against Austria in the World Cup qualifier.

Next week, Finland also plays two international matches against a Swedish “league national team” in Karis and Sjundeå.

– It is super important that we get to showcase our national team players to our juniors. As a national team, we can arouse interest like this and I hope that the clubs will bring players to the matches, says Westerlund.

The women’s FM series starts with Dicken–BK-46 on Wednesday. On Saturday it continues with GrIFK–KyIF and HIFK–SIF.

The position of the six league teams

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