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 March 2023 

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Handball: Kazakhstan – a 50-year-long quest to join the world’s elite


By clinching a place at the world handball championship finals, due to be held in France next month, Kazakhstan women’s squad presented a precious gift for the national federation, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

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With a sensational win at the Asian handball championship in Almaty earlier this year, Kazakhstan also gained a place at the Beijing Olympic tournament. “The fact that Kazakhstan will play in the world finals is a great success itself,” the federation deputy president Nikolai Astafiev told AFP. “We are not setting any particular objectives for our squad,” he added. “They should just do their best at our first ever world finals and get a dose of international experience that they badly need ahead of next-year’s Olympics.”

Handball in Kazakhstan first appeared in 1957, when the women’s teams were founded in three of the then-Soviet republic’s cities – Chimkemt, Almaty and Karaganda. However, the game developed weakly in Kazakhstan, where it was always overshadowed by higher-level competition in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – the Soviet republics that dominated the sport. Kazakhstan’s teams were usually relegated to the lower Soviet leagues and were always the underdogs on the rare occasions when they managed to appear in the country’s top division.

The participation of Almaty side Burevestnik in the 1989 national cup final, which they lost, remains the republic’s biggest ever success in the Soviet era. A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, handball – never a traditionally popular sport in Kazakhstan – was in total disarray. Public interest, and funding along with it, had dropped to virtually nil. Nevertheless, diehard handball enthusiasts worked to keep the game alive in the now-independent republic. Although they were unable to hold national championships on an annual basis, their efforts began to pay off over time. After a decade of uphill struggle, federation leaders managed to find new sources of funding for the game and investments began to produce returns almost immediately.

In 2000, the Kazakhstan team won bronze medals at the Asian juniors championships, clinching another podium place a year later at the Eastern-Asian games. Finally the republic’s women’s squad produced a sensation, winning the 2002 Asian championship and confirmed their class once again by clinching the silver medal at the Asian Games just several months later. But the country’s winning squad failed to show up at the 2003 world championships as the team was almost disbanded after some of their leaders finished their career, while the majority of other top players were sidelined with injuries and pregnancies.

The game’s ruling body however managed to keep the newly-acquired winning traditions fresh and prepared the national women’s team for the 2006 Asian games in Qatar, where they finished as runners-up before winning the 2007 Asian championships at home. Local media reported that the 16-player team and their coaches received a $30,000 bonus for their victory. Before the start of the world championship, where Kazakhstan will battle in the round robin stage with France, Argentina and Croatia for a pass into the knockout round, the team set up their training base in Lithuania. On November 19-22 Kazakhstan will also practice in Moscow together with the reigning world champions Russia before their departure to France.

“We are dark horses at the event,” Kazakhstan national manager Lev Yaniyev said.

“This is our main and probably the only advantage. France are clear favourites in our group. They are really strong. But I believe we are capable of beating Argentina and can struggle with Croatia for a place in the play-offs.”