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​OPINION: 2024 Wallball World Championships has potential to be transformative

The eyes of the handball world will be on the University of Limerick in August and if everything goes to plan, the sky is the limit for international handball, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.

The President of GAA Handball, Conor McDonnell, said it best.

“In the Centenary year of GAA Handball, it is appropriate that the World Handball Championships are being held in Ireland,” said GAA Handball President Conor McDonnell.

“The World Wallball Championships and Irish Nationals being held at the University of Limerick in August will be the most spectacular handball event ever staged in any part of the world.”

As excitement grows ahead of the World Wallball Championships which is now just over five months away, it is becoming clear that this has potential to be more than just “another” tournament. In terms of international handball, the greatest area for potential growth is in wallball and when the story comes to be written, this Worlds could yet be seen as a tipping point.

As the President of the World Handball Council, Dessie Keegan, confirmed in a recent interview, the WHC will continue to oversee the hosting of both the 4-Wall and wallball World Championships in conjunction with the respective host committees but there are simply much greater options in terms of venues with the latter.

The code of 4-wall - as well as the traditional Irish games of softball and hardball - are wonderful forms of handball and will be protected. One only has to look at the successful fledgling link-up with TG4, which will include all handball codes, for evidence but internationally, facilities capable of hosting an event on the magnitude of a World Championships are scarce.

“It would be fantastic to see a Worlds, for example, in New York or Paris or the Czech Republic or Australia,” Keegan said.

“It would be much easier for those countries to consider hosting a world event if it’s in wallball, simply because it’s a lot cheaper.

“It’s not outrageously costly to construct five wallball courts back to back and host a major international event whereas in 4-wall, you just can’t do that unless you have the facilities on site already and if you are going to build them from scratch, that would cost a lot of money that organisations just don’t have.”

Keegan was right. The financial impact associated with constructing a multi-court 4-wall venue from scratch to host a Worlds or similar international event are vast. Outside of Ireland, the United States and Canada, multi-court 4-wall venues which could host a very large tournament are not plentiful.

The costs associated with building multiple wallball courts under one roof are just a fraction of what host committees would have to shell out were they to throw up eight to 10 4-Wall courts, complete with costly glass walls to facilitate spectators and so on.

“The simple aspect of the wallball game makes it easy and economical to erect a wallball court against a wall, or several within a sports hall, community hall or school environs,” stated McDonnell.

“I have played in tournaments in Valencia and Bratislava in the last two years and whilst the facility at Club de Pilota Valenciana de Tavernes Blanques was the most impressive with five indoor courts and six outdoor courts, the court in Bratislava, run by Slovak Shamrocks GAA Club, had to change venue at short notice, and simply moved to an indoor sports area, taped up a front wall of a court temporarily for the day, and that was it.”

Luckily for handball, Wallball, as well as having the last barriers to entry in terms of construction costs, is also the code which seems best-placed to cater to the largest number of countries. Again, Keegan’s words are quite instructive in this regard.

“The other big thing, on a personal level, is that anyone involved in international handball knows that while there are brilliant codes with different perks, in terms of the true international game that’s going to break down so many barriers or get into Olympic or other international Games, wallball is the one that has any hope of doing that,” he said.

“When you speak to sister sports organisations, the one thing they tell you is you need 25, 30, even 40 different countries legitimately playing your sport before you can get invited to various different events.

“For the Olympics, you’ve got to have over 40 countries playing. There’s no way we’re going to have over 40 countries playing 4-wall – and that’s okay, 4-wall will have its place but wallball is our only legitimate chance to bring this sport to a level we’ve never seen before and either we’re going to be serious about that or not. And I’d like to give it a go and see what happens.”

That – potentially one day making the Olympic Games – may seem like a pipe dream but is it? For one thing, it is something the GAA have been happy to publicly discuss, which is itself promising.

Shane Flanagan, the association’s Director of Coaching and Games, spelled out part of his vision in an interview with the Irish Examiner in June 2022.

“There is massive potential internationally,” stated Flanagan.

“If we can get that right and build stronger relationships with the different international bodies out there, we’ve a huge opportunity to make the game really, really attractive to young children. The opportunities to play in America, across Europe and God knows where else, they don’t exist in Gaelic football or hurling unless you’re lucky enough to get on an All-Star tour or something like that…

“I think we should be trying to get handball on the Olympic charter as well, I think that would be a terrific prospect for the GAA as a whole and I think it’s a vision we should have.”

Recent European events have left observers in no doubt as to the rising standard on the continent and in the UK while wallball is played by tens of thousands in New York and the wider east coast of the United States.

Outdoor 3-wall handball, which could reasonably be viewed as Wallball's close cousin, is very popular on the west coast and in cities in the mid-West and elsewhere as well as having a strong base in Australia.

So, there is a large base of existing handball communities already in situ and playing wallball or something very close to it - and that's before we even get to mention the massive numbers of Basque pelota and Frontball players in Spain, the Basque Country, Mexico and other parts of South America. Of late, a fledgling Wallball association has even been set up in India while Irish expats in GAA clubs across Europe are now trying their hand, no pun intended, in Wallball.

“I have been in contact with over 40 handball associations in 25 countries, inviting their players to attend,” explained McDonnell.

“Some of these associations play 4-wall, some play 3-wall, and others play wallball or variations of that game. The common theme is ‘any ball, any wall’. That ethos will allow handball to expand and explode into a worldwide phenomenon.”

The dedicated World Wallball Championships section on this website, including the entry portals, can be accessed here.

It is, then, clearly a no-brainer; if handball is going to make a great leap forward and become a mainstream and much better-known and more popular international sport, wallball will be the key.

That sense is underpinned by the dominance of the Irish in 4-wall competitions at international level. A decision was made some years ago to withdraw the Irish team, who traditionally travelled to the USHA Juniors at Christmas, as the standards had fallen dramatically in north America.

When Ireland did send a team to San Francisco last year, they overwhelmed the best of the Americans and Canadians. We point this out not to be critical but rather to illuminate a major issue which threatens the very future of 4-wall handball at international level - the gap between the young Irish players and the rest appears nigh on unbridgeable at present.

The good news is that this August's World Championships will be very competitive in all age groups. There is strong underage development work going on in the wallball code overseas and if those associations make the trip - and it is hoped that they will - then the Irish will face formidable opposition. And that's exactly what we want.

In this the centenary year for the sport, there is every chance we will see an organic pivot towards wallball at international level. There will be a 4-Wall World Championships in October which will hopefully attract the very best players from those countries which play the 4-Wall code, of which Ireland are the leaders at present.

Plans are afoot to make that a tremendous success but the sense is that the standalone Wallball Worlds has the potential to be a transformative event. Ireland has successfully hosted World Championships in the past but never before have we seen an international tournament on this scale dedicated to the wallball code alone.

Both Conor McElduff and Keegan used the phrase "showcase" in recent interviews and that sums it up. The eyes of the handball-playing world will be on the University of Limerick this August.

A dedicated, custom-constructed arena, deep international competition, a focus on a single code – all of the elements are in place for an event which could be truly groundbreaking.

The vision is there and the necessary elements are in place. Now, we must bring it all together.

Build it, as the old movie line goes, and they will come.