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30.03.2016, 16:34
Finland need to go all in against Luxembourg
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FEATURE: Finland’s national coach Kaj Kekki admits that his team faces several challenges ahead of the intermediate play-offs on the road to the EHF EURO 2018 against Luxembourg
 

Finland need to go all in against Luxembourg

Two years ago Finland caught the eye of Handball Europe by eliminating Romania in the play-offs for the qualification to the EHF EURO 2016.

However, after they finished among the three lowest ranked teams en route to Poland 2016, they were relegated and have to play the play-offs once more, this time meeting Luxembourg, who came qualified through the first qualification phase, on 7 and 9 April.

However, apart from the triumph against Romania, one does not hear much about Finnish handball, and this may seem like a bit of a paradox as all other Nordic countries, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland are all within or close to the international top.

“It is a question of tradition,” explains Patrick Westerholm, one of Finland’s best known handball players over time, and the current head coach of Danish league winners Team Tvis Holstebro.

“In Finland, handball is mainly being played in the Finnish-Swedish parts of the country – the regions, where the Finnish-Swedish language is being spoken, and this is part of the reason, why there are only around 3,000 active handball players* in Finland.

“It is pretty obvious that it can be hard to build elite from such a number,” says Westerholm.

He also points at another reason why Finland is a bit behind its Nordic neighbours when it comes to handball.

“In Finland floorball is a very big sport with a professional league, and this often makes it hard for the handball teams to get the necessary time for training in the country’s sports halls.”

However, he does see signs of development and improvement in Finnish handball.

“Lately, we have seen handball growing in areas in which it has not been that widely spread before, like in the Helsinki region in particular,” he says.

In the middle of a generation change

National team coach Kaj Kekki agrees with Patrick Westerholm.

“It is difficult to form a strong national team in a country with only 3,000 players. Although I’m not sure this is a particular handicap against Luxembourg who probably don’t have many more players than we have.

“However, we are also facing some other challenges ahead of the matches against Luxembourg.

“Several of our key players are injured, and furthermore, we are in the middle of a generation change. Some experienced players have ended their career and young talents are being integrated at the moment.

“Therefore it is actually rather difficult for me to say just how strong our team is right now,” says the 52-year-old coach who started his second term in charge of the Finnish national team last summer, his first one being from 1992 to 1998.

“I hope to get sufficient time during our preparation phase to get an idea where we stand.

“We start our preparation on Sunday, meeting for a training camp. From there we are going directly to Luxemburg for the first play-off match,” says Kekki.

“I have watched Luxembourg play a few times, and I think they have a strong team, which does not come as a surprise to me,  considering the good results some of their club teams have achieved in the Challenge Cup in recent years.

“We are in for a tough task trying to defeat Luxembourg over two matches, but we will simply have to go for a good result away and then try to make it all clear at home,” Kekki says.


*UPDATE: Shortly after the publication of this article we received an input from the Finnish Handball Federation saying that there are now 4,100 active players in Finland


TEXT: Peter Bruun / ts
 
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