17th November 2021
Top British handball coach Ricardo Vasconcelos has said it was a “massive victory” for his GB side to take part in their first competitive action since 2019 – and explained why the game in this country is set for an exciting future.
Ricardo, England Handball’s National Coaching and Workforce Manager and Head Coach of Great Britain Men’s team, last weekend led the side to the qualification tournament for the 2023 IHF Men’s World Championship.
It was a case of three matches in 72 hours for GB at the event held in Finland – and the first competitive action from any of its teams for over two years.
Despite a valiant effort from a group of young players that included six debutants, the event at Energia Areena in Vantaa ended in a trio of defeats against Georgia, Estonia and hosts Finland.
Ricardo said: “The big news is that we were back on court after three long years of inactivity. Being back and doing what we love makes us very happy.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for what is a young side, and the fact we were there in the first place was a massive victory.
“Looking at the circumstances and context, it would have been extremely hard to do better than we did, so I’m very proud.
“It helped us understand where we are and define where we want to be. It gives us a good basis to work on moving forward.”
Despite the disappointment of ending in a 38:22 loss against their Finnish hosts, Ricardo said the group should take great encouragement from the fact their three opponents had not been forced to cease matches due to the Covid pandemic.
He said: “Whilst GB stopped for the pandemic and did not restart, many other countries didn’t. Georgia, for example, had seven to 10 matches during that time, plus camps.
“The professional environment also certainly makes a difference in achieving the high level they have. We will get there eventually and bridge that gap.”
Charged with developing the talent pipeline, Ricardo said the future is exciting – and that initiatives such as working with Scotland and GB, plus the new Elite Performance Academy in Loughborough led by coach Joao Castro, have been “massive”.
Ricardo added: “There’s a solid pathway with synergies developing with both associations. It’s great for the future and we are seeing more kids coming through the pathway and arriving at latter performance stages at GB level.
“It’s evidence of the great work the clubs and the nations have been doing to provide meaningful pathways for their players, and it puts the players in a professional-like environment with a high-level coach and sessions every day.”
Ricardo said it’s also fantastic to see all areas of the sport developing.
“If you look at the grassroots elements, there’s a major drive towards getting handball into primary schools – and a major drive in terms of inclusion, including promoting better learning opportunities for our coaches.
“We are taking the right steps. It won’t all happen overnight, but medium to long-term, we are heading in the right direction.”
Unlike various other European countries, handball in England is not yet a professional sport.
But Ricardo, who joined England Handball in 2013 and has undertaken various roles within the organisation since then, said he hopes that will come in due course.
“That’s the dream,” he said.
“England Handball is doing a lot to try and support the clubs and to grow our reputation. It’s a cultural shift that’s required – raising the profile of the sport is key.
“It will need new sponsors and commercial revenues coming in. It will change and shift the paradigm of the clubs. We are currently run by volunteers who put in an amazing effort to promote and help the sport they love.
So is that a realistic possibility, and how long could it take?
Ricardo said: “I don’t think it’s short term, but we are closer now than we were a couple of years ago. I’m not sure when it’s going to be, but people are trying the best they can and taking the right steps.
“We hope that the areas and the focus we are giving to primary schools will help us along that road too.”
In terms of ones to watch and exciting talents coming through the ranks, Ricardo said there is a “long list”.
He said: “We are providing players with better conditions at national level, which we hope will be reflected at club level.
“It’s showing the quality is improving year on year. We hope our English players will continue winning contracts with overseas clubs – gaining experience and increasing exposure of the sport in England.”
Developments over the coming weeks and months include the launch of the National Schools Championship and the launch of a new scheme for primary schools.
Ricardo added: “We hope last weekend’s competition marks the restart of games and competitions for both GB and England.
“Now with significant funding from UK Sport, we are well set for an exciting future for people playing the game here.”
Photo: British Handball