Spanish Handballʼs Ambassador

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar April 19, 2015 10:40

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Spanish Handballʼs Ambassador

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by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (April 15th 2015)

Exports

If British handball is to progress, the players need to test themselves against the best players. Two foreigners who did just that emerged far better players as a result. Brasilian goal-keeper Chana Masson and Spanish left-winger Elisabeth Pinedo Sáenz travelled to Denmark to play at the top level. Masson arrived in 2007 – sheʼs still there.

Pinedo played there for HC Odense for just one year before joining table-topping BM Bera Bera. Her team is based in the picturesque Basque port of San Sebastián – home to Real Sociedad and their new coach, the former Manchester United manager David Moyes.

Pinedo chose well. Prior to her arrival the team she mentioned Itxako Reyno de Navarra was the dominant force in womenʼs handball in Spain. Itxako had won la División de Honor four times in a row. Her team Bera Bera finished second in her first season in 2011-12 to Itxako.

It was the beginning of the end of the once great club. Itxaco dropped to ninth place the following season. They became a noted victim of the financial crisis, somehow struggling on after losing the sponsorship of their main backer Asfi in 2011. On October 17th 2013 Itxako Reyno de Navarra was liquidated by a court order – a sad end for a once dominant club.

Meanwhile, Pinedo had an ambition to win the Spanish league. “It could happen, one never knows”, she said in 2011. “We’ll have to wait and see”. It has happened twice so far with the added bonus of the Copa de la Reina and the Spanish Supercup in 2013 and 2014 as well.

An Integral Component

Bera Bera currently tops la División de Honor Feminina (the Womenʼs Division of Honour) by two points with six matches of the season remaining, including a potential title-decider against second-placed Gran Canaria on May 16th. However, win, lose or draw, Bera Bera currently enjoy a superior goal difference – +168 compared to +143.

Both will be aware of third-placed Galicians, Mecalia Atlético Guardes five points adrift of Bera Bera with a goal difference of +90. With games running out – notwithstanding all three teams’ recent excellent form – it might already be a two-horse race.

Pinedo was an integral part of Spainʼs team that won the silver medal in the European Championships of 2008 and 2014 and bronze at the 2011 World Championship. She also won bronze at London Olympic games. Pinedo returned to Spain after her spell with HC Odense ended. She believes that playing in Denmark made her a better player.

“I feel I’m a much more complete player”, Eli Pinedo told us. “Playing with other teams improves one’s game because it exposes you to other styles of play. I feel it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. I would really recommend that the younger players do this because the sport of Handball in Denmark is very strong and they can learn a lot. I like it a lot”.

The Traps

Pinedo faced immense difficulties, not of her making. Although it is a fast-growing sport, it has yet to establish itself in her country apart from in the Comunidad Valenciana – the Valencian Community, which includes Alicante and Valencia. The Valencian club now known as Mar Valencia began its domination of Spanish wommenʼs handball in 1979.

It was broken only by Alicanteʼs Eder in 1999, 2003, 2004. Mar Valenciaʼs final title to date came in 2005. Another Valencian club Amadeo Tortajada won the league in 2006 and 2007, before Ederʼs last title in 2008. The following year, just three years after their league and cup double Amadeo Tortajada ceased to exist for economic reasons.

The baton was then passed to the Basque region, first to Pamplona – well actually the nearby historic town of Estella (Lizarre in Basque)1 – and currently San Sebastián. Just three years after the demise of Amadeo Tortajada, Eder asked to be relegated for financial reasons in 2012. A year later Itxako Reyno de Navarra became the highest profile victims of the financial crisis in Spanish Womenʼs handball.

We spoke to Pinedo in 2011 as the Danish season was reaching its conclusion. She thought then that she would return to Spain. “Right now there is a very good team, Itxako Reyno de Navarra”, she said. “The rest of the teams are rather weak. There’s not the same level of competition that we have here [Denmark]. The level of play there is not as strong. There’s only one team that is good whereas here, nearly all the games are played at a very high level of competition”.

Nevertheless, there was a proviso. “This team [Itxako] is currently playing in the Championʼs League”, she said. “There are three others playing in the European leagues right now”. Pinedo became part of the winds of change, as the team she joined seized the baton from their neighbours to become the leading club in Spain.

Challenges

Spain faced sporting competition, made starker by the effect of the economic crisis and the long-overdue success of the menʼs football team, which went from perennial under-achievers to the dominant team in the world – world and European champions at the same time. Pinedo refuses to use that as an excuse for handballʼs problems.

“Even when Spain wasn’t the world champions, no one paid much attention to the sport of Handball”, Pinedo said. “This is even more true for Women’s Handball. There’s just not much enthusiasm about the sport in Spain. We’ll have to see if we can do well at the next World Cup matches and go from there”.

Itʼs a different story in Scandinavia. “Here in Denmark it’s much stronger”, Pinedo says. “More people come to watch the games, there’s more coverage and the schools here support the game much more so. In Spain, there are many people who have never even heard of Handball”.

But finances are taking their toll.

“Right now salaries in Spain are low due to the economic crisis, but that is also true in Denmark”, she says. “Three or four years ago things were a lot better, but that’s changed. Perhaps things are just a bit better in Denmark than in Spain, but there is only one team in Spain that is doing okay financially. All the others are struggling”.

Ambitions and Inspiration

And this in a country that won the Bronze medal at Londonʼs Olympic Games – another ambition achieved. Her ambitions were to “win the world cup in Brasil, qualify, thus, for the Olympics in London and then forget about Handball”.

She wanted to play in the Olympic Games. “We have to play in December [2011] at the World Cup in Brasil”, she said. “If we are placed among the top seven teams, we’ll go to the Olympics”. They did. She was excited about making that goal. “Absolutely”, Pinedo said. “I think it would be a great accomplishment to have played at the Olympics”.

As usual she surpassed her expectations. Spain won the bronze medal at Londonʼs Olympic Games. But the lure of the sport proved too strong, despite the problems. If she was serious about retirement, the lure of the sport proved too strong, despite the problems. It coincided with the emergence of her club Bera Bera. Her club began its domination after the Olympic Games. She still plays for Bera Bera. European tournaments – is the next hurdle. Bera Bera has not mastered it yet.

She admires other players, but is not inspired by them. “One of the best players is Yeliz Özel from Turkey”, Pinedo says. “She plays in Oltchim in Romania.2 I’ve always liked her play. But as far as inspirational people are concerned, I always felt that my game is different from others. I’m very tall and not as fast as some of the players, but I have other techniques that are unique. I think it’s important to learn from other good players, but I’m not inspired by any of them”.

1 The famous Carmino de Santiago (Way of St James) pilgrimage goes through the town on its way to the final resting place of the Apostle James – Santiago de Compostela).

2 Özel returned to Turkey in 2012. Aged 35 she is still playing. Özel also played in Macedonia before her Romanian sojourn, but has played most of her career in Turkey.

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar April 19, 2015 10:40
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