Handball Makes a Comeback

After two decades of obscurity, handball is regaining ground in the world of Ethiopian sport. This year, for the first time in the country’s history, a handball premier league competition has been set up. The competition involves 10 clubs and is a milestone; a significant step taken not only to restore the sport’s former popularity in the country, but also to advance its status. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wondifraw looks into the sport that’s making a comeback.

The decision by the Ethiopian Handball Federation (EHF) to launch the Ethiopian Handball Premier League a year ago came as very good news to everyone involved. Prior to this, the only handball championship involved just 3 teams in Addis Ababa. With the new premier league format, the Federation has seen 10 teams register.

Mulugeta Girma, the coach for the national team, remembers the heyday of Ethiopian handball (1969 – 1983). “That was the time handball was introduced to the nation by university professors. By the early 1970s, we already had the Handball Federation. Later in the mid-70s, the military and police units in the country formed several good teams. There were 17 teams nationwide, and the competition for the titles was very stiff.”

After the establishment of EHF in 1970, competitions were held continuously on an annual basis. In Addis Ababa alone, 10 clubs participated in various competitions during the decade. Within a few years, the sport had become so popular in Ethiopia that it had spread to all corners of the country. The existence of 10 women’s clubs and the different handball courts found in higher institutions, military camps, hotels, and sport training centres demonstrates how popular the sport was. In fact, handball became one of the few sports the country competed in, during various international tournaments.

After Ethiopia became a member of International Handball Federation in 1971, the national team participated in the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich, Germany. Ethiopia also participated in competitions like the All African Games, held during that time.

In the 1990s, the sport that was capturing the attention of the public suddenly lost ground. The political adjustments that came with the 1991 regime change wiped out the military teams from the competitions. For over two decades, only a handful of teams survived to keep the sport alive. Some of these were Federal Prison, Federal Police, and Defence, who competed with each other over the last 10 years.

During this period, for those who dreamed of being handball players, the opportunity was no longer there. “It was very discouraging. You could only play for these three clubs or you just quit,” says Molla Tefera, the office head at EHF. “Now we have the premier league and we have managed to add six more clubs to the competition. These clubs employed many more players who could have left the sport for other work.”

“This is a big opportunity for others too,” says Mulugeta. “The coaches, like me, had no place to work even though we had high level coaching licenses. Referees have more games to officiate, and can earn some more money.”

Mulugeta stresses that the commencement of the premium league competition gave the Federation even more reason to be active. “The players, coaches, and referees benefit. Players will improve and stay in top form when they compete in season-long league games.”

Despite all the benefits the new move is likely to bring in, it did not come easy. The EHF is struggling to find financial assistance to cover its expenses. Alongside the annual ETB370,000 it receives from the government, the Federation gets a registration fee of ETB25,000 from each of the 10 teams.

“We are trying to manage the league with the minimum cost, which does not exceed the ETB 470,000 budget we allocated this season. The plan to begin the women’s premier league this year did not materialize because of budget limitations. We are trying to secure sponsorship agreements, so we can launch the league for female players and coaches,” says Molla.

The Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC) is one institution that has helped the EHF out. Last year, the EOC endowed the Federation with ETB75,000 when it was struggling to run the league. And this year, the EOC allocated another ETB100,000 for handball development project trainings.  The International Handball Federation, assists the EHF with materials and technical training.

Stakeholders stress that handball has yet to achieve the level of recognition that can bring in sponsors. The small venues where the games are played have yet to see healthy crowds.

Molla urges the media to take part in helping to restore the love of the game. “We do not demand excessive coverage. They can inform the league results to the public regularly. This will motivate the players and coaches, and attract sponsors to invest their money.”

The EHF knows it has a lot of work to do to make handball popular again. “You find people who are familiar with sports but get confused with handball. You hear them referring to handball and volleyball interchangeably,” says Molla.

Right now, players are paid a monthly salary of ETB2,000 to ETB5,000. Coaches are paid around ETB5,000. Considering the clubs’ salary expenses, owning a handball team might not be a huge burden to businesses. Had it not been for the home-away league format, which forces the teams to travel to Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Alamata, Hosana, Durame, Butajira and Hawassa, the overall budget might have been easier to manage.

“That was the clubs’ decision. The Federation let them choose between the home-away format and the regional championships, which brings the best teams on the national level together for play-offs. They preferred the home-away league format,” says Molla. “So far, they have managed it.”

Mulugeta, who also manages the Kirkos District’s handball team, believes the home-away arrangement is the best league format. “I want to see my players test themselves against the best teams from the other regions. I understand all the financial pressure transportation and accommodation brings. But it seems manageable. It will not be a problem because we keep the number of clubs in the league limited.”

For the moment, there are 142 projects all over the country producing players. Each team in the premier league registers 16-18 players. Handball’s female players hope to see the women’s league launched next year. And clubs are managing to cover their expenses in the domestic league. EHF, however, is still struggling to cover the costs of the national team at the international level.”

6th Year . February 16  – March 15 2018 . No.58

Abiy Wendifraw

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