GB handballers hope for landmark Finnish flourish
It's often said the British invent sports, spread them around the world, then get beaten by the rest of the world in short order.
The British men's handball team have taken a shortcut to the third stage. They play a sport nobody in Britain has heard of, but which is popular elsewhere - particularly northern and eastern Europe - and cannot buy a win, for two reasons.
The first is that the GB men have only been a team for 18 months. They won one early friendly against Oman, and can claim a draw against Luxembourg last October, but otherwise have found their inexperienced players routinely trounced by both international and club opponents.
The second reason is the team have barely any money with which to buy that win, after handball was hit by UK Sport's financial cutbacks in January 2009. Though the International Olympic Committee stepped in with some funding, a centralised programme in Denmark has been forced to close, and players now struggle to earn a crust on the European club circuit.
But a place at the London 2012 Olympics beckons if the team can demonstrate they are competitive. They hope to start down that road at their first major tournament this weekend - by beating Finland.
Victories over Finland are rarely major sporting milestones but the Finns, hosts of the weekend's pre-qualifying tournament for the 2011 World Championships, could become Britain's first competitive international scalps when the two meet on Sunday.
"Bosnia and Romania (the two other members of Britain's pre-qualifying group) are two very tough teams. Finland are a little bit lower than them but will still be very tough - that's going to be the one where we really try to aim for a good result."
Even if GB beat all three nations and won their group, it would only put them into a second qualifying tournament in June - still a big step away from the World Championships themselves, in Sweden next January.
The team are real outsiders in Olympic handball. It is a sport barely acknowledged in the UK, with a squad whose players have, on average, eight or nine caps - very few of those from competitive internationals.
Many European nations line up with players boasting the experience of 50 or 60 top-class international games. It is no level playing field, and the British face a long slog to catch up.
"We've got guys who have only been playing handball for two years," said John Pearce, a winger who plays at club level in Denmark, having given up rugby as part of the UK Sport Talent ID programme. "It's extremely difficult. There aren't any rest periods, there's no Christmas, no breaks. I train twice a day playing catch-up."
The funding cut dropped the sport's cash handout between 2009 and 2012 from £2.9m to £1.45m, and drastically reduced the time British players spend together. Coaches hoped to fine-tune fully-funded athletes at a dedicated facility in Europe ahead of 2012. Instead, those players spend most of the year fighting for places at European club teams alongside continental team-mates who grew up with the sport.
The British team are together for at most 60 days a year, if they are lucky. It is not an ideal environment in which to break the winless streak.
"The funding cut was massive for us," added Pearce. "Guys are out in Denmark, Sweden and around Europe with no support, taking out loans from the bank, going bankrupt just to try to stay in the sport.
"I remember it to this day, hearing the news. Faces dropped. Having that support taken away was unbelievable but it redefines your ambition and drive."
Both of which are qualities Britain need in spades if they are to shed their reputation as world handball minnows. The team's most pressing aim is to register a win - a place at London 2012 is in the offing, if the British Olympic Association deem them worthy of entry.
The man charged with convincing the BOA is Serbian Dragan Djukic, a top club coach in Hungary who works part-time leading the British squad.
Djukic, formerly head coach of Macedonia (who finished 11th at 2009's World Championships), joined after the funding cut, so he knew precisely the mountain facing Britain's men when he signed up last June. Why would a highly-regarded international coach be tempted by what must, to most in the sport, seem a lost cause?
"The UK is a big European country and handball needs a chance to come here and be a competitive sport," explained Djukic.
"My dream is to make this initial fire of British handball after the Olympic Games. I have a group of players ready to sacrifice a lot for the Olympics, and there is a very competitive Under-21 team. That is very good for the future."
The future begins in Finland: can GB get a win on the board? Djukic agrees it is the team's best chance yet, but you sense he would not put his mortgage on the result.
"We drew the two best possible teams - Bosnia are favourites in the qualifiers, Romania are three-time world champions, and Finland? Unfortunately it's in Finland. It's difficult to say we will win any game but our target is to play official, competitive games. It's not the same if you play friendlies - we need this experience."
Britain face Romania on Friday and Bosnia on Saturday before Finland entertain them on Sunday. Captain Ciaran Williams remains an injury doubt but the rest of the squad should be fully fit.
That is the good news. The bad news is that, in the run-up to the tournament, the team have already played - and lost - six competitive internationals in January, including a similarly winnable tie against Qatar, a defeat Djukic labelled "very disappointing".
All that activity has made this the most intense period in the recent history of British men's handball. The embryonic GB squad has enjoyed a rare opportunity to forget funding worries for a time, focus its energies and develop both skills and understanding over the past four weeks. A win against the Finnish would be a fitting finish.