As America gorged itself on the Super Bowl, another champion was being crowned Sunday in a far more globally competitive sport: team handball. Don’t remember team handball? It’s the fast, physical, seven-on-seven court sport in which players try to hurl a ball the size of a honeydew into a net the size of a chifforobe. American reporters tend to notice it only during the Olympics, when they wonder why the U.S. doesn’t have the best team in the world because, you know, LeBron would crush at team handball.
The 2015 Men’s Handball World Championship was the 24th edition since 1938. In the first 23, the gold, silver, and bronze medalists—every last one of them—hailed from Europe, where fans pack arenas and watch on TV, and kids play when they’re not on the soccer pitch or korfball court. This year, however, an outsider crashed the medal party: the tournament host, Qatar.
The tiny Gulf state with fewer than 300,000 nationals is no handball hotbed. The sport was introduced there in 1968, and Qatar didn’t join the International Handball Federation until a decade later. Qatar did qualify for the 24-team world championship from the weak Asia region four times, but never finished higher than 16th. Entering this year’s tournament, Qatar was ranked 32nd in the world. Even the lowly U.S. sat three places higher.
So how did Qatar transform itself overnight into a handball power? The same way it secured the tournament over handball-loving bidders France, Poland, and Norway, and the same way it won the right to host the 2022 men’s soccer World Cup: cold hard cash. Among the elites who control international athletics, oil money is a favored currency nowadays. Despite allegations of worker exploitation, human rights violations, and bribery, Qatar’s goal of becoming “the world’s capital of sports” doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Big sports events “are going to wind up going to places that have not only the fiscal resources but also the ability to make funding decisions that don’t have to meet the light of day of transparency and a public process,” Doug Logan, the former head of USA Track & Field, told the New York Times in November after Qatar was awarded the 2019 world track and field championships.
The recent handball tournament could be a case study for things to come. While other countries balk at spending billions to host major sports events, Qatar has no apparent budgetary constraints. For the handball championship, it built three new arenas with a total of nearly 30,000 seats, part of a massive sports infrastructure construction effort that has triggered an international outcry over the treatment of migrant workers. (This week, Qatari World Cup officials appealed for more time to address human rights complaints.) Tournament organizers flew in Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani, Jason Derulo, and other pop stars to entertain.
But building stadiums and booking acts is easy. Winning games is hard. Qatar didn’t want to embarrass itself in the handball worlds with a 20-something finish on home soil. A team of native handballers would have been overmatched against the Europeans, and Qatar didn’t have time to try to develop its own world-class players. So it took advantage of a convenient international handball rule that allows a player who hasn’t competed for his national team in three years to join another one. Offering big contracts to play in the domestic league, become citizens, and play for the national side, Qatar built a roster that included about a dozen foreigners, or more than half the team.
Athletes switching nationalities happens in plenty of sports. But the landscape of Qatar’s imports—from Spain to Cuba to Tunisia—was pretty audacious. Left back Bertrand Roiné earned 20 international caps for France. Star goalkeeper Danijel Saric played for Serbia and Montenegro and for Bosnia and Herzegovina before joining Qatar. (Saric was the only member of the team who stayed with his European club, FC Barcelona, rather than move to Qatar.) The team’s top scorer, Zarko Markovic, represented his native Montenegro 30 times, tallying 95 goals, before moving to Qatar last year. “I have come in a country where there were a lot of investments in the last couple of years and where this sport is at high price,” he said upon signing with El Jaish SC, home to several of the foreign-born national team players.
The Qatar Handball Association no doubt also paid a high price for its coach: Valero Rivera López, who guided his native Spain to the gold medal at the last world championship in 2013. Rivera brought with him a Spanish assistant coach, a Spanish statistician, and a Spanish team doctor. The deal was sweet enough for him to leave behind his son, Valero Rivera Folch, whom he coached on Spain’s national team.
Qatar completed the Iberian takeover by flying in 60 fans from Spain to root for the home team. “They are paying for the flights, lodging and full board in a good hotel,” one of the Spanish fans told Agence France-Presse. “It is a good enough offer to make you cheer them on in their matches, even if they are playing against Spain.” It wasn’t the first time Qatar hired fans. In December, the Associated Press reported that Qatari officials paid migrant workers to cheer at soccer, volleyball, and handball matches.
At the handball championship, Qatar won four out of five games in the group stage, losing only to Spain. Then, in the knockout rounds, it began toppling European powers. Down went Austria, 29–27. Then Germany in the quarterfinals, 26–24. Then, in the semifinals, Poland, 31–29. Not everyone was excited about the run. “I think it is not the sense of a world championship,” Austrian goalkeeper Thomas Bauer said. “It feels like playing against a world selection team.” After the Germany game, Rivera, the Qatar coach, refused to answer a question about his international smorgasbord of a roster. “It’s better to talk about handball, OK?” he said.
The Qatari team was considered good, and the home-court advantage helpful, but not that good or helpful. So when the team went on its Goliath-slaying streak, eyebrows rose. During and after their losses, players and coaches on all three vanquished European sides complained about lopsided officiating. After their semifinal loss, Poland’s players serenaded the two referees with sarcastic applause.
“It was conspicuous that all the referee couples who have a reputation for being particularly capable of standing up to pressure were kept away from the games of Qatar in the ‘round of 16,’ the quarterfinal, and the semifinal,” Christer Ahl, a former IHF refereeing official, wrote on the website Team Handball News. “And in all cases, ‘less resistant’ referees were seen by neutral observers as having had a lot to do with the Qatari wins in very narrow games.” The IHF’s current head of refs admitted inconsistencies in officiating but denied any favoritism.
Allegations of crooked referees aren’t new in handball. Two German officials were suspended for five years after $50,000 in cash was discovered in a suitcase after a European Cup match in 2006. Before the 2008 Olympics, the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out a victory by Kuwait over South Korea in an Asian qualifying tournament on grounds that uncertified refs from Jordan were assigned to the game at the last minute and influenced the outcome. “The referees saw fouls and infringements that obviously did not happen, essentially ‘inventing’ decisions,” Ahl wrote in a report cited in the court ruling. Ahl said he was kicked out of his IHF job after blowing the whistle on suspect refereeing.
If it sounds as if there might be parallels between international handball and international soccer, that’s because there are. Both sports have faced allegations of cronyism, bribery, match-fixing, and other corruption. Their leaders—FIFA’s Sepp Blatter of Switzerland and handball’s Hassan Moustafa of Egypt—have swatted away the controversies and won multiple re-elections by gaining the loyalty of sports officials from small, often financially needy countries. And they have accommodated the bottomless-pocketed oil-producing nations, especially Qatar, whose influence in international sports has grown exponentially in the last decade.
“It is all very much the same issue and situation as FIFA,” Ahl, who has spoken out against Moustafa and the handball federation, told me in an email. The main difference, he said, is that handball “can operate in the shadow of FIFA because IHF and handball gets much less publicity [and] exposure.”
In 2010, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Moustafa allegedly took kickbacks of about $830,000 from a TV rights deal. A probe by German prosecutors appears unresolved, but Moustafa was re-elected in 2013 with more than 90 percent of the vote of the “handball family.” In France, a betting and match-fixing scandal in 2012 engulfed players at a top club, including a current national team star. The players denied wrongdoing and the French handball association overturned their suspensions.
The 2015 world championship wasn’t without pre-tournament shenanigans either. After qualifying for the tournament, Australia was booted when the IHF decided that its regional federation didn’t have enough members, and Germany, which had failed to qualify out of Europe, was slotted instead. Later, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew, possibly over political tensions with Qatar. One of the replacements, Olympics handball darling Iceland, didn’t come from the same region but had complained about the addition of Germany. The other, Saudi Arabia, was included despite finishing below South Korea in Asian qualifying.
As for Qatar, the charitable view of its sports surge is that the country wants to use its oil and natural gas wealth to create an advanced nation and a better world. That’s how government and sports officials, in a two-part series in the Times last year, described a Qatari soccer academy that is recruiting and training young players from Africa and elsewhere. The academy’s foreign administrators told the newspaper that the program was not intended to convert players into Qatari citizens for the 2022 World Cup. But one of them said: “I suppose maybe some of the players feel like they would want to represent Qatar, because Qatar helped them when their home countries did not.”
At the handball championship, Qatar’s team of ringers couldn’t pull off the ultimate miracle. France won Sunday’s gold-medal match by a score of 25–22. Doing anywhere near that well at soccer’s World Cup will be a far greater challenge. But there’s no doubt that over the next seven years Qatar will spend however much it takes trying. The signs are already popping up. On Wednesday a German newspaper reported that the country has its sights on a national team coach for 2022: Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager now with Bayern Munich. How did Guardiola end his playing career a decade ago? With a nice payday in Qatar.