As the cameras slowly panned across a curiously Balkan-looking Qatari men’s handball team during the country’s national anthem prior to the do-or-die preliminary-round match between Qatar and Argentina on Monday, one thing became clear: Most of these dudes don’t know “As Salam al Amiri” all that well.
Those who did sang along with aplomb. But going down the row of players with their hands over their hearts, mouthing along either a hair too fast or too slow, was like watching a procession of American middle schoolers being graded on their recitation of the Gettysburg Address.
Meet Qatar’s national handball team, a transnational chimera entirely the product of the International Handball Federation’s extremely ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ naturalization protocol (though they are hardly alone in the practice): If a player has not participated on their country’s national team for three years, they’re free to naturalize wherever they want. Of the 14 players on Qatar’s Olympic handball roster, 11 of them are foreign born, and most have represented their home countries in the Olympics before. Hell, goalkeeper Goran Stojanovic is technically playing for his third different national team, having played for Yugoslavia before its dissolution, and later for his home nation of Montenegro.
Naturalized Qatari handball players stand to earn more than €1 million playing for their adopted homeland, which is crazy, since many of the imports are well into their 30s. Qatar is on a quest to throw down as much money as it takes to fulfill its self-proclaimed destiny as “the world’s capital of sports,” evidenced by the $220 billion bill it paid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. But I can’t help but think Qatar’s vision for its national handball team is narrow, given the lack of restrictions from the IHF and the country’s surfeit of oil money. Most of the players they’ve chosen to naturalize (and throw big money at) are European stalwarts far past their prime. If they really want to make waves in the sports world, why not dream bigger? Why not go for NBA talent?
It’s a hypothetical that’s been brought up over the last two Olympics: What if we had athletes like LeBron on a U.S. national handball team? The U.S. national handball team coach (yes, we have one) estimated that it would take LeBron six months to become the best handball player in the world. The U.S.’s lack of a presence in a game that combines the physicality of rugby, the dynamic layout of soccer and basketball, and the ball-throwing strategy of baseball is truly baffling, and it’s a notion The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore explored in depth in Rio:
“You’re talking about another sport with running and jumping, changing direction and throwing a ball into a net?” Team USA point guard Kyle Lowry said to Kilgore. “Yeah, I think we could figure it out. How much do they make?”
Not enough. Not nearly enough. Handball would have no sway with the NBA’s best talent, but if Qatar is already going after handball players in their late 30s to propel the country’s handball scene to worldwide prominence, why not gamble on aging basketball players with far superior physical gifts?
Handball is tailored to the lapsed NBA fan who feels displaced by the newer, softer generation of basketball: Hand checking is an inextricable part of handball; ball movement is mandatory, since players are allowed to hold onto a ball for only three steps or three seconds — you’re allowed to dribble, but it’s not ideal; the ball is the size of a grapefruit. Borja Vidal Fernández, a 6-foot-9 basketball convert from Spain who plays the pivot position for Qatar is often put in schemes that resemble basketball pick-and-rolls. But operational space on a handball court is limited — each goal is surrounded by a 20-foot-wide moat where only the goalkeeper is allowed to preside, and defenses largely cluster in a 5–1 formation that forms a fucking wall around that zone. Thus, the faux-pick-and-roll isn’t aimed to create a wide-open opportunity so much as it preoccupies defenders to allow for a secondary play. As a roll man, Fernandez essentially functions as a decoy, meat shield, and battering ram simultaneously.
Here he is setting the screen:
And here he is, two seconds later, sealing off one defender as Cuban-born left back Rafael Capote goes up for a jumper:
Moving screens are totally legal! Let’s get Kendrick Perkins in a uniform, ASAP! Think of all the money David West has sacrificed trying to win an NBA championship. Then think of the money he might be able to recoup after his NBA career is over playing for Qatar, in a sport where he is legally allowed to grind his opponents into dust.
Qatar will face off against Germany, the 2016 European handball champions, Wednesday in the quarterfinal. They will be the underdog. Qatar has been an inconsistent team throughout the preliminary rounds, and were never considered favorites to medal, which makes it fair to wonder if the strategy of buying allegiance is worth the cost.
Naturalization been controversial since Qatar unveiled its new-look team during the 2015 world championship — working a loophole to limits that even Sepp Blatter found absurd. Given the complaints, the IHF could decide to revise its naturalization rules before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But if they don’t, let’s get Gerald Green on the wing and Kemba Walker at center backcourt in four years. You’re the richest country in the world, Qatar. Let’s go for broke.