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14 days ago - 2/8/2019

“Handball is a game of skill, but more a game of will”

Ireland is a sports mad country. We love everything from rugby to cricket, soccer to basketball. Our stadia are choc-a-bloc, with people from all strata of society, for any sport that comes down the pike. But it wasn’t always the case. Now you may not know it, but one of the biggest sporting associations in Ireland is the G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association). The main sports include Gaelic football, hurling and handball (not our kind of handball). Once upon a time, in fact only 50 years ago, there was a rule in the GAA called “The Ban.”

The ban basically said that if you played Gaelic Sports and were a member of a club, then you could not play any other foreign games. This particularly meant the triumvirate of sports from the great colonial power England, i.e. soccer, rugby and cricket. I kid you not. Back in the early days of my life certain schools were either a Gaelic sports school or a rugby powerhouse and never the twain would meet. In fact entire stadia were filled with those who wouldn't dream of paying to see the other sport. There was a serious division of the class of person (both political and financial) who would watch any given sport.

“We never played soccer in the school yard”

Now when I was a kid in the early 70s, the ban had been lifted, but there was a lingering effect. My education was through the medium of Irish. My school was republican in its outlook. Irish language and culture was seen as dominant in the extreme with the result that even though I enjoyed playing soccer on my road, it was a guilty secret in school. We never played soccer in the school yard.

The contradiction in my life was that my father had served in the Royal Air Force. Not altogether an isolated incident as many Irish people moved to Britain to work. Anyway my father was a big cricket fan, liked the rugby and occasionally watched soccer. Whereas my mother was from the republican background so the all-Ireland Gaelic finals were more likely to be watched.

But for some reason they both agreed that boxing and athletics were good sports. Boxing in particular. They would both watch boxing on TV and both were fans of Muhammad Ali. For them he was the greatest sportsperson of all time and would never be matched.

My father would say that although he had great hand speed and great footwork, what really separated him from all the others was his spirit and his will. In his mind he could never be dominated. He would wax lyrical on how Ali beat Foreman in Zaire, Frazier in Manila and Norton at the Forum. In his opinion all the other heavyweights were stronger and had the bigger punch and Ali had no right to beat them. But he did so because none of them could match Ali for his sheer force of personality and his will.

“You may not get there, but you'll get damn close”

Will. It's a powerful word. It's desire, control, purpose and power of choice.

There's an old saying: "Where there's a will, there's a way." People trot it out in meaningless fashion as if it's the elixir that fixes everything. But look deeper and it's about you deciding to chase something with all the weapons you have at your disposal. You may not get there, but you'll get damn close.

Champions League handball is a complex and difficult game with so many variables. Handball is a game of skill, but it's more a game of will. And if you're skill outmatches your will, then you're in trouble. The group stages favour the teams with the most talent. And after a juggernaut season for so many players, which included copious amounts of games, players will need to recover and recover quickly. The first 10 matches put you in position to have a chance. Your will over the next four gives you momentum.

Put aside the mental and physical drain on players and now they must face off against players that one month ago were national teammates. They have to flick that switch quickly because the knockout phase is just over the hill.

“The great players for me are not just the most talented”

And if you think that perhaps I'm pushing the envelope on how important will is, just look at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 as a tournament. Over the history of the event, it hasn't always been the skill teams that win. In fact, sheer force of will and never-say-die commitment has won the day on more than one occasion. The "one and done" nature of the finals is as much about force of will as about skill alone.

The great players for me are not just the most talented. They are the ones who on the greatest stage show up and bend the result to their will. They never know when they are beaten. Teams overwhelm their opposition with preparation, attention to detail and skill.

Champions add in that intangible ingredient called will.

I can't wait. It's a landmark year for the EHF FINAL4.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Author: Tom Ó Brannagáin, ehfTV.com commentator