18 European teams aim for global glory
For the first time, an IHF Women’s World Championship will throw-off with 32 teams, when hosts Spain duel with Argentina in the opening match of Spain 2021 in Torrevieja on 1 December. Another premiere is that Spain host a major women’s handball championship after their successful 2013 Men’s World Championship and the Men’s EHF EURO 1996.
In total, 18 European teams are part of the 25th Women’s World Championship. Spain qualified as the hosts, Netherlands as defending champions after beating Spain in the thrilling 2019 final at Kumamoto, Japan, decided by a penalty of Lois Abbingh with the final buzzer. The four semi-finalists of the EHF EURO 2020 - winners Norway, silver medallists France, bronze medallists Croatia and fourth-ranked Denmark - booked their tickets to Spain, while ten more spots were decided in the European playoffs in April with Hungary, Montenegro, Russian Handball Federation, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Sweden and Slovenia qualifying, while Poland and Slovakia were handed a wildcard to participate by the IHF.
Playing system and host cities
The World Championship is hosted in the four cities of Granollers, Lliria, Castellon de la Plana and Torrevieja. The playing system is the same as at the 2021 Men’s World Championship in Egypt: The preliminary round is carried out in eight groups with four teams each, three per group proceed to the main round, the fourth-ranked teams continue in the President’s Cup (ranking positions 25 to 32).
The two best-ranked teams of the four main round groups qualify for the quarter-finals, followed by the semi-finals and then the medal matches played on 19 December. From the quarter-finals onwards, all matches take place in Granollers.
The only World Championship debutant is Iran, while Slovakia, Uzbekistan and Puerto Rico all play their second tournament on the global stage. Besides the Polish and Slovak teams, China also received a wild card for Spain 2021.
Romania is the only team, which has been a part of all 25 Women’s World Championships so far, ahead of Hungary (23) and Denmark (22). The record champions are Russia with four trophies (2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009) ahead of Norway (1999, 2011 and 2015).
The first tournament of an Olympic Cycle is particularly hard to predict as many teams have major changes in their rosters, already focussing on the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. In that respect, Norway appear to have the best chance of winning their fourth trophy as their squad did not change that much, compared to the likes of France and the Russians. The squad, which won EHF EURO 2020 with a clear record of eight victories in eight matches, maintains its major stars such as Katrine Lunde, Nora Mørk, the DELO EHF FINAL4 MVP Henny Reistad and Györ trio Kari Dahl Brattset, Veronika Christiansen and Stine Oftedal.
In contrast to Norway, Russia are under full transition under their new head coach Liudmila Bodnieva. After winning the silver medals at Tokyo, Olympics MVP Anna Vyakhireva and Daria Dmitrieva announced a break from handball, Ksenia Makeeva is pregnant and experienced players such as Vladlena Bobrovnikova, Anna Sen or Polina Kuznetsova were not nominated in the previous matches, meaning a fully rejuvenated team will start in Spain.
Olympic champions France are in a different method of transition with some of their younger players were already playing in Tokyo, such as new team captain Pauletta Foppa, while some experienced players like Alexandra Lacrabere are not part of the squad anymore. This stability makes France one of the favourites.
Defending champions Netherlands have a new interim coach, Monique Tijstermans, taking over from Emmanuel Mayyonade, who had steered the “Oranjes” to gold in Kumamoto. The good news for her is that Japan 2019 MVP Estavana Polman has returned from two severe knee injuries and will be a boost for a team, which has maintained its core from previous years.
Four-time IHF Player of the year, Cristina Neagu, is on a national team break, but this is not the only weakening Romania had to deal with as goalkeeper Denisa Dedu is on maternity leave, Gabriela Pereanu and Elisa Bucheschi are injured and it is uncertain whether line player Crina Pintea will be ready for Spain.
In contrast, Sweden are on the rise since coach Tomas Axner took over. Although Isabelle Gulldén quit playing for the national team, Sweden made it to the Olympic semi-finals, before losing to France and Norway.
Hosts Spain could be the dark horse on home ground. After the early elimination in the preliminary round of the Olympic Games, coach Carlos Vizer was replaced by his former assistant Ignacio “Nacho” Prades and he steers a quite young team on home ground, without regulars Nera Pena and Mireya Gonzalez. Some famous names such as Carmen Martin, Silvia Navarro and Alexandrina Barbosa are still part of the squad.
Spain placed themselves in an easy group to start, facing Austria, Argentina and China in group H. And even their potential main round opponents from group G seem to be softer than others: Croatia, Japan, Brazil and Paraguay.
One European team will definitely miss the main round, as group E is an all-European one with Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Besides group A could be the “group of death” for a European team, as Olympic champions France were drawn together with former EHF EURO champions Montenegro, African champions Angola and Slovenia.
Two contenders face in group D - Sweden and Netherlands, but their remaining opponents Uzbekistan and Puerto Rico look quite manageable. The same appears to be the case in group C, in which Norway and Romania face Kazakhstan and Iran. However, from this quartet Sweden, Netherlands, Romania and Norway, only two teams will proceed to the quarter-finals, as they are set to duel in the main round.
Three European teams are in group B - Russia, Serbia and Poland, plus Cameroon, Denmark is the only European side in group F together with Asian champions Korea, Tunisia and Congo.