Wiederer: "Handball is more attractive than ever before"
On 17 November 1991, the European Handball Federation was founded in Berlin, Germany. Its first employee was Michael Wiederer, who was previously the Secretary General of the Austrian Handball Federation and took the same position at the newly founded EHF at the age of 36. After 25 years as Secretary General, Wiederer was elected EHF President in 2016 and now is in his second term of office until 2025.
In this two-piece interview on eurohandball.com (the second will be released on 21 November), Wiederer first looks back on the early days and the development of structures, competitions and events, then takes a deep look into his crystal ball to envision the future of European handball.
When you look back, what was your introduction into the international handball scene?
Michael Wiederer: As young General Secretary of the Austrian Federation, I first came into contact with the international handball family at the 1988 IHF Congress in Seoul at the Olympic Games. There is a picture of me with the current IHF President Hassan Moustafa from the banquet. We are the only conference participants from 1988 who are still in office today. My first big task was to organise the B World Championship in Austria in 1992.
How did the EHF finally form after many years of discussion?
Michael Wiederer: Politically it was a very interesting time with the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Eastern Block. And that was also one of the reasons why the EHF could be founded. Because the blocking of some eastern European federations against the founding of a continental federations stopped. Many representatives of these federations were previously afraid of losing their positions in the IHF if a European federation was founded because Russia, Poland, Hungary, the GDR, Yugoslavia and Romania held important positions in the IHF commissions. Suddenly there was a lot of movement in Europe and in European handball, the pressure to found a confederation, after the other continents had already done so long before, grew ever greater. At the beginning there was, of course, little enthusiasm from the IHF.
How do you remember the founding of the EHF?
Michael Wiederer: I have always been there at meetings and talks with Staffan Holmqvist and Carl Güntzel, for example. And when the location of the headquarter was to be decided when the EHF was founded in Berlin, there were suddenly five applicants, the last application was submitted by the Austrian federation (ÖHB) with Vienna shortly before the closing date. This application included, among other things, that the ÖHB should bring the first Secretary General, in this case me. The decision was postponed to the first EHF Congress in June 1992 - and Vienna was awarded. As a 36-year-old, I handed over a successful ÖHB - the women were qualified for the 1992 Olympics, the men for the A-World Championship in 1993 - to my successor.
How were the early days in your new role?
Michael Wiederer: On 1 September 1992, I moved into our first office in Hotel Bosei in Vienna as the first EHF General Secretary, and the first European Youth Championship in Hungary was starting at the same time - that can perhaps be seen symbolically for the entire development of the EHF. The junior championships were the starting point of the careers for many world stars and the EHF also started like this - because previously there had only been U20 and U21 World Championships. Today, our system is based on up to six tournaments in the Younger Age Categories: European Open, European Youth Olympic Festival, European Youth Championship, Youth World Championship, Junior European Championship and Junior World Championship. It is a story of success.
Soon the preparations for the first Men’s EHF EURO were on the agenda.
Michael Wiederer: Indeed, as a groundbreaking meeting followed in the autumn of 1992 and we signed our first contract for the Men’s EHF EURO 1994 in Portugal with the Swiss sports rights agency CWL - the predecessor of Infront. To this day, Infront has been our partner for TV and marketing of the EHF EUROs, which shows the continuity at the EHF in this area as well.
How important was equality in women's competitions to you and the EHF right from the start?
Michael Wiederer: One of the principles at the EHF has always been that women's and men's competitions are treated equally, and so it was also clear that a women's European Championship would also be held in 1994, awarded to Germany. Excitingly, this circle is now coming full, because in 2024, Germany will organise its second EHF EURO and its first men's event. With the first Women's European Championship, a Scandinavian series of successes began with Denmark and Norway, and Sweden was initially the measure of all things for the men.
Has there never been any difference between men's and women's competitions?
Michael Wiederer: Yes! The only difference really, and that is much later in EHF history, was that the EHF FINAL4 was introduced for women four years after the men, and that for women the field of participants in a European Championship was enlarged to 24 teams also four years later, otherwise everything ran parallel. As far as the European Championship is concerned, we first had to ensure the quality for such an increase, by motivating and supporting many associations.
How have you generally experienced the development of the EHF competitions over the past 30 years?
Michael Wiederer: In all competitions, we were always concerned with constant and consistent further development and this is proved best in the EHF Champions League. If you look at the innovations that have come up in these years, it is outstanding. The number of fans, the TV numbers, the contacts via social media, the game system, the number of participants – the EHF Champions League was and is always changing and in tune with the times, and is currently more attractive than ever before. When it comes to the media presence of the Champions League in particular, I have to think back to a story: in the beginning, the clubs had all the TV rights for their home games and in Germany, for example, a final away game of a German club was not broadcast live on television because the legal situation was very diffuse or the clubs could not assert themselves. At some point we sat down with the clubs and suggested centralised marketing of TV rights, which was anything but easy to achieve.
In 2010 there was the big bang in club handball, the first EHF FINAL4 in Cologne. Was that a brave decision or a logical one?
Michael Wiederer: Definitely a brave step, I was always in favour of going to the really huge arenas, others in the EHF said we should start in a hall for 5000 fans first and then approach larger ones. We decided on the city with the largest indoor multi-purpose arena in Europe: Cologne. In handball, the Spaniards had invented the FINAL4 format and the later IHF Vice President Miguel Roca, former head of the Spanish league, always raved about this format to me and the EHF. When the German cup final weekend in Hamburg was successfully played in this format, Cologne had emerged as a great handball venue at the 2007 World Championship, and VFL Gummersbach also attracted fans in this huge arena, we gave the starting signal for Cologne.
In terms of the EHF FINAL4 format, we had to break resistance from some clubs that had previously been able to collect their income from home games in the semi-finals and finals on their own. But we were able to dispel the concerns, even if we always say that the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne is not an event to earn money for the EHF, but that we want to use it as a showcase to underline handball as the most attractive indoor sport for spectators in Europe. It was also a political process to assert on this issue.
How did you experience the start of the new era and the progress of the EHF FINAL4?
Michael Wiederer: The premiere in Cologne was sensational. We worked very hard to ensure that the LANXESS arena was sold-out with 20,000 visitors, everyone was enthusiastic. It was and is the right way, as the next few years showed. Initially up to 75 per cent of all visitors came from Germany but now, for example in 2019, over 60 per cent came from abroad. Although no German team was there four times, we were always sold out when fans were allowed in the arena. The fact that all fans stayed in the arena at an all-Spanish final in 2011 is just as sensational as the development of ticket sales. When we started selling tickets for the upcoming year in Cologne, we had to stop advance sales at 8,000 tickets. You must remember that there was not even a draw for the group stage. The EHF FINAL4 in Cologne has developed into a real nimbus.
And the event became a role model for the women's competition.
Michael Wiederer: Exactly, Cologne was the model for the Women's EHF FINAL4 in Budapest. The women's clubs rightly said “we want something like Cologne” and we said, ok, but only if nobody makes a loss with it. That is when Budapest came into play and the Hungarians have been doing very well since then. Now we arrive at the exciting point when we play in the new 22,000-capacity arena in 2022 and see how we all master this challenge.
But the EHF is not just the Champions League - how important are the other competitions for the development handball clubs across Europe?
Michael Wiederer: In general, all club competitions have developed enormously, the new playing system of the EHF Champions League with 16 participants each for men and women also ensures that the new European Leagues for men and women have been upgraded and are a real substructure for the Champions Leagues. The final tournaments in the Men's EHF Cup since 2013 and the European League 2021 are also success stories; we held this tournament for the first time in the women's event in the middle of the pandemic.
How do you rate the increase in the number of participants at EHF EURO events, so far for men, and in future also for women?
Michael Wiederer: We just want to give more countries, who all deserve it, the chance to take part in the European Championship. It used to be that the twelve best nations were almost always there, below them ten or twelve countries are fighting for the four free spots. The gate to enter to an EHF EURO was always relatively narrow for those nations, ranked 13 to 24 in Europe. The best example are the Dutch men and after their first appearance at the European Championship, many players have joined top clubs in Germany and France. With 24 teams, we have around 16 places for those who are always there, and eight spots for those between 17 to 36 - because a lot has happened from 20th place onwards, and a lot has developed in Europe, though the teams in positions 30 and above have a very difficult time qualifying. In addition to the expansion of club competitions, those changes in the national teams, for youngsters and adults, ensure the broad development of handball in Europe. Because the incentive to be able to take part in a men's and in the future also a women's European Championship with 24 countries is a great motivation.
What does the EHF do with the additional income from the increased European Championships?
Michael Wiederer: We are not a savings federation that puts its money in the bank, but a development federation that also supports all European handball financially. We invest in accordance with the respective congress resolution and promote good ideas and good projects from national associations as part of our development work. The Memorandum of Understanding and other agreements with the clubs regulate exactly how they participate in our income and how the money is distributed.
You mentioned the relationship between the EHF and the clubs - since the Lillehammer Congress in 2008, the relationship has gradually and fundamentally improved, has it not?
Michael Wiederer: We have a very constructive cooperation with the clubs. It is a complex process that involves participation and influence but also finances - which is always based on democratic principles. My predecessor Jean Brihault understood very well how to use his diplomatic skills to create a perfect and professional platform for discussion for all sides. With the Professional Handball Board and the cooperation with the Forum Club Handball for men's and women's handball, we have created structures that benefited everyone, especially during the pandemic. All groups knew that we were in the same boat and that we had to row together - in the same direction. That is what I call a demanding process but then the result also holds.