DanskHåndbold President Morten Stig and "the Danish way". TWITTER

With a population of less than 5,9 million, Denmark is one of the great masters of handball, a sport that was invented in Central Europe with both Denmark and Germany claiming it. 

The Danes' devotion to handball was the key to the the Women's World Championship's extraordinary success, which they hosted together with Sweden and Norway in front of more than 12,000 spectators at the Jyske Bank Boxen in Herning on the last two days of the competition. 

One of the people responsible for this great moment for handball in this country on the Jutland peninsula is Morgen Stig Christensen, President of DanskHåndbold (Danish Handball Federation) since 30 August 2021 and an outstanding former player who took part in three Olympic Games and made 190 appearances for the national team.

Stig, who is very much in the media thanks to his constant TV appearances, analysed the positive reality of Danish handball for Insidethegames and was pleased that finally both the men's and women's teams are finally among the elite.

The women's bronze medal at the World Championships is the third medal in a row at a major event for a team that has returned to its strengths after making history with three consecutive Olympic gold medals in Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Meanwhile, the men's team of Niklas Landin and Mikkel Hansen are the current Olympic runners-up, having won gold at the last three World Championships and bronze at the last European Championships.

Denmark won bronze at Women's World Championships in Herning. DANSK HAANDBOLD
Denmark won bronze at Women's World Championships in Herning. DANSK HAANDBOLD

Less than six million inhabitants and Danish handball is always at the top. It's a miracle. But... ¿how? 

First of all, it has something to do with our club system. In the Nordic countries, but also in Germany, we have a very special system. Our so-called clubs (teams) are very important. They're not exactly like clubs in other countries. We have handball in kindergarten and we do not select players until they are about 15 years old. We don't start too early, because it's very important for us that they have a lot of people having fun playing handball. When you're having fun, it's easier to develop and the results can be much better. Another advantage is that you can't see who's going to be really good at 10 or 11, or who's going to be 20 or 30 centimetres taller. We try not to split players too early because we need a lot of people in our system. Instead of having 25 talented players in a training camp at the age of 15, we have 50 or more.

Should these young teams forget about medals and concentrate on producing A-team players? 

Yes. We would like to win medals in the youth categories, but the main thing is to develop the players. The only team that should win is the A team. 10 or 15 years ago, we were winning medals at all the youth championships, but four or five years later we weren't playing for medals at the senior level. Now we are concentrating on developing these young players so that they are ready to play for the senior national team and the big clubs. So we've completely changed our mindset. It's very important to keep the youngsters more time in handball. We should think about how to work with talented young players in a Danish way and not just copy France or, on the men's side, Spain.

"We should keep the youngsters more time in handball and find out how to do everything the Danish way"

You can't exclude players on the basis of your population... 

Yes, that's one of the main things. It would make no sense. So we have to find the Danish way and look at what has happened in the Faroe Islands, the small islands with 50,000 inhabitants that will be playing in the European Championship in January. It's like a small town in Europe and they qualified.

What did you think when you saw so many families playing handball in the Fan Zone? 

I liked it a lot. That's also why we had the Fan Zone. We wanted to have a big handball party and to involve these families. Normally they would come to the Danish game, but not to the previous one. So we wanted to have them here for half a day to have fun. They can watch the first game and then go back to the Fan Zone. We also had an agreement with the team. Win or lose, at least three players will be there with the fans. They did it after losing the semi-final by one goal! And it wasn't easy to find them, but Christina Jørgensen said, "OK, I'll do it. I will replace you". It's important to show our fans and families that we're happy to have them cheering for us. Even if we lose, we are ready to meet them. Who can get close to Messi or Ronaldo? In handball, we need to have the opposite of football. The fans can be closer to the players, to the heroes. It's also important for our sponsors. Two years ago we had around 80 sponsors in Spain. During the championship, on a rest day, the teams will meet the sponsors and have lunch together for two hours, and we organise it so that the players never have to wait for the sponsors. They are ready in the restaurant, we put them at different tables and the players sit there. That way the sponsors feel that they have a personal relationship with the players. We try to act like a family and that's definitely the Danish way.

What did you learn when you were in Spain two years ago? 

That's a difficult question because it was the Covid era. Herning is a small town, but we have an environment with everything we need. So we have learned a little bit more about how to treat our sponsors because the accommodation and the city of Barcelona was fantastic for them, but we cannot copy that. We can take inspiration from Spain, from France, but we should do it the Danish way.

Danish men's team won the last three World Championships. DANSK HAANDBOLD
Danish men's team won the last three World Championships. DANSK HAANDBOLD

What is the relationship between DanskHåndbold and the clubs? Who organises the Herrehåndboldligaen (First Division)? 

It's a club league, but we have a commission for professional handball with three people from the Danish Handball Federation and three from the League Association. We haven't had any problems, but we're trying to make it a bit more professional because it's often difficult for them to make decisions. There are very big clubs and very small clubs. Maybe in the future we will have a chairman from the business world. I'm not a chairman, even though I'm the president. We are there to support the league. On the Board of the Federation, it's more about what I call 'grassroots' handball. That means children's handball or handball for people my age (64). We have five-on-five handball on smaller courts, a league of happiness for children with Down's syndrome. Now we have 1500 players with mental illnesses.6

"Handball is a cultural thing in Denmark and it has been the case for more than 100 years"

Why is handball so important here? 

It's a cultural thing. This has been the case in Denmark for more than 100 years. Handball was invented in Denmark... or Germany. We still discuss it for fun. I think that the Germans started playing 11 against 11 on grass. In Denmark, it was more of an indoor sport and then it became seven against seven. What happened in Denmark in the 60s is that every small town had its own 'hole', so you could have 40x20 and that's perfect for handball. You also had have the badminton courts in the opposite sense and that's why we have a badminton culture. For example, Victor Axelsen has just won the World Tour Finals for the third year in a row.

Please, go on... 

In the schools we have physical education teachers, but also handball and football teachers. And that's why we have a very strong handball and football culture, because all the children have been used to it by their sports teachers. So in the summer a lot of kids play football and in the winter they go indoors to play handball. We had a very famous footballer, Soren Lerby. He played for Bayern and was the same age as me. We came from the same area in Copenhagen and when we were kids, he was the best handball player in Denmark until he was 12. Then, of course, he chose football, but we still talk about it. I remember playing against him and he scored all the 11 goals that made his team... He was so good back back then!

Morten Stig, during his playing days. TWITTER
Morten Stig, during his playing days. TWITTER

And what about clubs? 

Here if some friends are very interested in floorball, we can open a club tomorrow based on democratic values. We have to sit down and decide who will be the president. After that, you will have some support from the municipality. So you will have facilities...  Then we can start playing floorball and have a children's team. That's how it starts. It's very simple. And that's also why we have so many volunteers. In the clubs, they are used to working with the kids and all the volunteers at the World Championships came from a club. We had 250 or 300 who helped us during a championship. We didn't pay them, but we gave a small amount of money to their club. 

Why do they want to help so much?

One way or another, they will benefit. And that's more or less the system. We can often host a championship because we have a lot of volunteers and we don't have to pay them, so we can concentrate on ticket sales and promotion. It's part of our culture. All our children are involved in some kind of sport, theatre, dance or whatever and everyone has a chance, whether they are good or bad, tall or short, fat or thin. And no matter what their religion. In Denmark, everyone is allowed to play with a headscarf, so all the refugees who come here, or workers from Turkey, from Syria... they can play handball and they do. But the main thing is, if they are children, please make it fun for them to play handball.

Denmark has only six million inhabitants and you cannot exclude anyone... 

Yes, that's our main problem. For example, if we keep a small and not very talented boy or girl until they are 15 or 16, we won't have a great player, but maybe a coach or a volunteer. We need as many children as possible in handball and this is a real challenge for us. How can we do it? How can we make it fun for the not-so-good players when they're 15 years old? We should keep them together in a group so they can have fun. And also for people of my age. How can we make handball fun? That's a part of our philosophy.

"We have about 100,000 handball licences and we're really good in terms of population/licences"

How many licences do you have? 

Player licences... We have about 100,000. That's great, but if you compare that to Germany, they have 800,000.

But with 14 times more population than Denmark! 

Yes, yes, yes. But France has 600,000. You're right, in terms of population/licences we're really good.

How important was it for the women's team to fight for the medals? 

It was very important because historically we have had the men's team on top and the women's team on top, but never both at the same time. During my time with the national team, I played in three Olympic Games (1976, 1980 and 1984) and several World Championships (the European Championships started in 1994 and Denmark). The women's team won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004. And the last decade and years have been the men's, not the women's. When I took over the presidency, we knew that it was very important to have both genders at the top level, to show it to the little girls and boys and to increase their interest in handball. We cannot win medals every time, but we should try to have an average...

Morten Sitg Christensen, President of Dansk Haandbold. TWITTER
Morten Sitg Christensen, President of Dansk Haandbold. TWITTER

The semi-finals or the quarter-finals?

The semi-finals are good and that's why this bronze medal is very valuable for us because it's the second one in a row and we also had a silver medal at the European Championships. An average of being in the top eight and maybe more in the semi-finals. But at the World Championship, you can win every game by 10 or 15 goals and if you have a bad day in the quarter-finals, you're automatically out. It's very important to have the women's teams at the Olympics 12 years later. It is also a big goal for us to have both teams in Paris and finally we can say that both Danish men's and women's teams are now at the top level.

"In the last five or six years we as a federation have put more money into the women's side"

What have you done to improve the standard of the women's team?

Mmmm... in the last five or six years we have put more money into the women's side. Maybe some federations think, oh, they are not good enough and we are not going to spend money on them. We had the opposite reaction. We see that the men are doing very well and they have a lot of support. So we did everything we could to help the women's team. What are the big challenges? How can we develop these areas? Why are we not as good as Norway or France? Do they need more physical training? Do we need to work more closely with the clubs? Do we need to talk to some players individually? Do they need some mental coaching?

I mean, this bronze has a lot of work ahead of it...

Absolutely, we've been concentrating on it for many years and that's why we're so happy. We have been in very close contact with the players, trying to change their mindset. In the last four major championships we have finished fourth, bronze, silver and bronze. We have the right to dream after those results. And we were very close to the final at this World Championships. Once again we lost to Norway. Maybe we should start a Facebook group saying "I hate losing to Norway in the final" (smiled).