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OPINION: With the decline of 40x20 overseas, is wallball the future of international handball?

The alarmingly poor entries and standard of non-Irish juveniles at the World Championships should start the debate on the future of international handball, argues Paul Fitzpatrick.

A great way to start a column, a lecturer once told me, is to pose a provocative question. So, let’s do that.

Here’s something I imagine quite a few handballers have been pondering of late but have been wary of saying aloud. Is 40x20 handball, in the international sense, in terminal decline?

Certainly, the numbers of non-Irish juveniles who played the four-wall competitions at the World Championships would suggest that palliative care is about all that is being administered in not all but too many of the traditional handball towns and cities in north America.

Irish players won 45 of the 66 four-wall grades from just 38pc of the entries. That says a lot about the standards, both here and abroad.

Many divisions in the Worlds were glorified Irish Nationals (indeed, 10pc across the board featured only Irish players), with only 20 players from the whole of Canada entering and Irish boys and girls winning every juvenile grade bar one, the 17&U four-wall doubles.

At Open level, it was almost as bad. The Ladies Open Singles quarter-finals in four-wall featured seven Irish players; the corresponding men’s division included six. If juvenile numbers are taken as evidence of what the future holds, the clouds seem to be darkening.

It appears that so long as Irish players continue to enter the Open divisions at Worlds and US Nationals, they will win them. Sadly, it seems likely now – unless there is a major change of policy in the States - that David Chapman’s 2011 US Nationals title will go down as the last ever won by an American-born player.

There is nothing more the Irish handball community can do. They consistently support events in the States in all divisions and go about their business the right way, with a focus on showcasing the elite players while growing participation at underage level.

For some reason, though, the number of underage players entering the big events in the United States has plummeted. This is not a criticism - maybe, it's a societal thing, who knows? - but it's clear that the system seems broken, despite the efforts of those involved. So, in my opinion, a day of reckoning is dawning for international four-wall handball.

Some time soon, I fear we will reach a tipping point and Irish players will stop travelling across the water for American and, to a lesser extent, Canadian tournaments; once that happens, the international 40x20 game will be finished for good.

The good news is that the demise of four-wall handball overseas does not necessarily mean the sport’s international dimension will be killed off with it. On the contrary – it could be argued that were the resources currently devoted to travelling across the Atlantic redirected into forging closer links with the wallball community in the UK and mainland Europe, Irish handball would soon be on a stronger footing than ever in terms of meaningful international competition.

Could cutting the connection with north American competition actually be the smart play by Irish handball at present? Travelling to the magnificent facilities in the States are certainly a big selling point but the competition must be there to justify the outlay and on from a financial point of view, it’s hard to see the sense in spending tens of thousands of euro sending a team to compete, essentially, against other Irish players. Just imagine what that money could do at home.

And from a media perspective, while their ears perk up when they hear 'World Championships', it's becoming a harder sell - journalists and editors are just not convinced when we try to hype up global events in which the Irish completely dominate. The suspicion is that, well, they are not really global - in fact, many grades are international in name only now.

Plus, accepting the fact that 40x20 handball is now effectively an Irish game might help give a boost to the 60x30 code, too, which has suffered for its lack of an international dimension. Now, they would be on an equal footing once more.

To answer these questions and figure out where we are going as a sport, we must remember where we have come from.

By the dawn of the 1970s, hardball was done for (“Hardball – the oldest form of handball – serves little purpose in the context of modern competition,” noted an Irish Times article in June, 1969) and while softball remained strong, soon, there was a drive towards 40x20, which really took off in the middle of that decade.

In 1974, the Irish Handball Council produced a special publication to mark its golden jubilee. Among the instructional articles and rolls of honour was a fascinating article which foresaw the direction the sport would take.

“The future lies in international competition and if we are to go ahead, it's important that handball be played in courts comparable to those played on in America and Canada,” stated Pat Kirby, a superstar of his day and a man extremely familiar with the game on both sides of the Atlantic.

Kirby went on to state that the greatest disappointment of his career in the game was to hear the 40x20 court being denounced at the annual Congress the year before, coupled with the experience of seeing the game being played on poor courts with poor amenities.

Joey Maher, another elite senior star of the era, chimed in.

“I would like,” he said, “to see an All-Ireland 40x20 Championship holding the same status as the hardball and softball championships.”

Sean Clerkin, “a former champion of the Dublin handball board”, went further.

“The type of court to be used in the future must be given mature consideration. It appears that economics alone places the 40x20 court in the forefront, not to mention that, for aesthetic reasons, it is the only type suitable for cities and towns.

“Definite guidance in this regard must be formulated immediately so that a conglomeration of different sized courts will not emerge over the years and leave us in a quandary as to what, in fact, is the standard court.”

Clerkin's words were prescient. A few decades on and 40x20, in many counties, has become the ‘standard’ game.

But the landscape has changed rapidly in the last 10 years. The small court game remains healthy in Ireland and while plans are afoot to give the big alley a shot in the arm, the biggest area of growth is now in the booming wallball code.

Hundreds of courts have popped up in schools and halls, there is now a well-attended circuit of tournaments, a brilliant and firmly-established showpiece Nationals and even a fledgling European tour.

And that last point is most pertinent. Given the decline of 40x20 handball overseas, GAA Handball could be wise to investigate focusing their international involvement on wallball.

It’s cheaper and more convenient to attend tournaments in Europe, for one, and there truly is huge potential for growth, factors which are not there for the four-wall game.

Which brings us back to another interesting piece in the archives of The Irish Times, this one from February 1966.

“One-walled [sic] handball is an interesting study and prompts the question whether it achieves anything in this country,” reads the article, with no by-line attached.

“As an ally for the four-walled game, it would be completely ineffective, for it has been proved beyond doubt that it is well-nigh impossible to become expert at both.

“But, in Irish public parks there is an appalling lack of ball courts. If corporations and councils were to consider this economical type of court, they would be rectifying the position to some degree and providing those who desire exercise with a cheap and healthy way of acquiring it.

“In time, competitions would follow and perhaps develop even on an All-Ireland basis. Would some county take the plunge and build a one-walled court? It would prove more than a useful experiment.”

Little did the unnamed author know how the game would grow in time.

The writer was wrong about two things – One Wall can complement four-wall and players can excel in both.

Unless there is strong action taken in America in particular – and at this stage, it would require unprecedented investment on their behalf as well as a culture change – it seems that four-wall handball, internationally, is a thing of the past.

The 40x20 and 60x30 versions of the game must be protected in Ireland but where World and European events are concerned, unless something changes radically in north America, it looks like wallball is the future.