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The Road To Limerick: ‘This is a massive showcase for our sport’

We sat down with World Handball Council President Dessie Keegan to discuss the 2024 World Wallball Championships.

What is your vision for what these World Wallball Championships will look like?

Well, firstly, I really wanted to split the Worlds and have separate events for 4-wall and wallball, it’s something I felt passionately about for a long time and some people close to me have always lobbied for that, just to see, I suppose, how big can we go.

For me, personally the reason I really wanted to do this is that if we can showcase how big handball can be and get as many countries as possible to come to it, then maybe we can sell a much better package to our European partners and other partners around the world.

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

For this Worlds, the fact that we have integrated with the GAA’s Coaching & Games department, I would be expecting a big presence of GAA people who are going to come and see handball in UL in a completely different light than they’ve ever seen handball before.

Recently, the GAA have launched an international strategy for international GAA so to have some of those people there at UL in a state of the art facility, with a huge amount of countries playing handball to a very high standard, maybe they can turn around and say that handball can be taken very, very seriously.

From a GAA perspective, I hope they will absolutely be able to see that this is a very serious international sport. From the WHC’s perspective, I want it to showcase what is possible with a good bit of imagination and not a huge amount of funding. It will be a case of ‘this is what we can do with an indoor arena’.

Hopefully that will inspire other countries to bring forward ideas for hosting their own events and go bigger than what they’re doing at the moment.

How many countries do you anticipate will be in attendance?

Obviously, you’re hoping the Americans are going to be there, the Canadians are going to be there. I’m hoping the Australians will send a team, the Mexicans and obviously a lot of European teams so I’d be hoping myself that anywhere from 10 to 12 legitimate countries will be there.

I think we got a good taste for this already at the European event in Dublin when we saw a lot of the European countries there and Americans and it was brilliant to watch. That’s what I’d be hoping for but I think it’s very important that the countries that are there are coming from indigenous handball communities so it’s not necessarily just Irish people coming who are representing another country.

We’ve had that in the past and that doesn’t do a lot for the credibility. Those ex-pat players are more than welcome and we’d love to have them but indigenous players from international countries are very important too.

I see the 2024 Wallball Worlds as the start of something big. I’ve made no secret of my desire to see the next Wallball World Championships take place in 2026. I think we need to go every two years, I really believe that - 2027 then would be the 4-Wall.

I am really pushing the World Handball Council hard to go with that and keep this momentum going. We could be looking at anywhere from 600 to 900 participants at this event in August and I think it would be brilliant to keep that momentum going and build on it.

We need to start thinking of venues for world events and how easy we can make it for players to get there and spectators and coaches. Plus, for associations sending teams, can we keep costs down?

This will be a spectacular standalone event but I think it will also help drive standards going forward.

If we start hosting major events around the world, I think it will capture the imagination and a lot of European countries will start employing development officers and things like that to match what the Irish are doing. I think the Irish are leading the way at the moment in terms of development and staffing and funding, I think all of that has to start happening in the other countries as well and if they start seeing this is a very, very serious international event, it would be easier for them to apply to their own local government agencies for development money.

I think the potential for growth is enormous and the fact that it’s in Ireland means it is huge for us to showcase the potential of the game to the GAA. For example, the likes of Tom Ryan, Jarlath Burns, Charlie Harrison, Peter Horgan, leading officials in the association who obviously have a key input in strategy.

Peter (Strategy, Insights and Innovation Manager with the GAA) attended the Collegiates in America and an event in Europe with me and he saw first-hand the potential of wallball - and to show them in August a proper international event with proper international athletes competing, I think this could be very, very beneficial for international handball long term.

When these people are investing in GAA programmes throughout the world, handball will be on the tip of their tongues, they will turn around and say ‘actually, this sport will break down barriers for us’.

You don’t need to be versed in GAA culture from a young age to play handball, it can break down that barrier.

I really think the more we show them this potential, the more they will keep backing it.

What are the other potential benefits of running separate wallball and 4-wall World Championships?

From a players’ perspective, it will give players a much better experience rather than running and racing from one code to the next. Players can focus, it’s very difficult to play wallball and 4-wall at one event.

I totally understand people being annoyed with entry fees and so on, however, this is going to be a once-off, I’m hoping from a World Handball Council perspective that we continue to keep the Worlds split and in future, the two of them won’t be in the same year.

In 2026 I’d be hoping we’ll have the next Wallball World Championships and, in 2027, we’d have the next 4-Wall Worlds which will hopefully be in Canada.

The two of them will never be on the same cycle again, it’s just the fact that we missed 2021 due to the pandemic. It won’t happen this way again unless people want it to go back to a joint World Championships but that can’t happen in my opinion because that will then immediately rule out any World Handball Council-affiliated country who don’t have 40x20 facilities.

So, from a player perspective, it was so players could focus completely on one code but from a sport development perspective, it makes complete sense to throw everything into one event in August. We were able to go after UL, they put up an amazing package there, that can happen when you have a split Worlds and they’re not having to worry about where they’ll get 40x20 courts.

Even the Sligo bid for the Wallball, again, they didn’t have to worry about 4-wall so it brings us into a different sphere in terms of promoting our game.

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, 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.

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.

What are some of the things your role as President of the World Handball Council entails?

As President, offering a strategic vision, making proposals on where our events take place.

We have relaunched our Facebook page, Margaret Walsh is doing amazing work there. We’re getting our presence out there a bit more.

It’s not as busy as the GAA Handball President’s role because there aren’t as many events but a lot of what you’re doing is lobbying and helping countries along the way.

We’re trying to generate income similar to what GAA Handball had years ago, to have a development fund to help new handball communities along the way in their journey.

I want to see how splitting the Worlds works out, that was a priority I had - we may need to pivot, we may need to adjust things but perhaps not. I think if we can keep our countries together and keep building the membership of the World Handball Council, which is difficult to do, it will help a lot.

The closer handball countries keep together the better, we can’t have splinter countries going off on their own because if they do, we’re all weaker.

It’s a very broad role and keeping in touch with various nations and keeping the international aspect to the forefront of the agenda. The World Handball Council is important for international handball for sure.

Going forward, we want to keep the momentum going, keep the two-year cycle going and bring the Wallball World Championships to venues that excite people.

Wallball has that capability, we can go to any destination. The potential is huge and we’re going to really see that in Limerick.

I’d encourage handball people wherever they are to check out this event, to try to enter and you won’t be disappointed, it’s going to be a major, major event for international handball and it could be the start of something very special for the sport we all love.

The World Wallball Championships take place from August 18-23 next at the University of Limerick.

Entry portal is here.