At the start of what is going to be, at least numerically speaking, an odd year, we look ahead to 12 months with no men’s football World Cup or European Championship; a time when, away from the lush pastures of the world’s most popular and attention-demanding sport, the often icy and ignored playing fields of a few different disciplines can finally receive the focus they deserve.
The men’s Cricket World Cup starts in May and the rugby version in September, but there is no need to go so long in search of global competition when alternative events already abound like so much January snowfall. Starting with the Men’s Handball World Championship, co-hosted by “the two handball-loving countries of Germany and Denmark”, which starts on Thursday.
For all that the event is about pitting nation against nation in very literally hand-to-hand combat, it is imbued with a spirit of co-operation that does not end with the harmonious hosts. The German singer Dominik Klein – not to be confused with the German international handball player Dominik Klein, even though he seems to have been chosen quite deliberately for that purpose – collaborated with the Danish DJ Kongsted to record the official song, the suitably energetic Stand Up Stand Out (“Full arenas and the best handball in the world need a song that gets us all excited and ready to party,” says Klein) while the mascot was designed “partly by fans” after a global crowdsourcing initiative.
This might have been a tactical error. They ended up with a moon-faced humanoid called Stan, who looks like Frank Sidebottom has just joined the Power Rangers. Stan, it turns out, is a visitor from the fictional planet GD19 where “most days we just celebrate, dance and sing”. The German handball association started its press release introducing Stan with the assertion that “mascots have always been born of strange ideas” and it is certainly true of theirs.
January, however, is full of events that do not need an outsized alien to get people muttering about strange ideas. Take the World Ice Fishing Championship, which starts in Batak, Bulgaria, in a fortnight, and involves contestants drilling access to a frozen lake and attempting to coax fish from its frigid depths by rapidly wiggling their miniature rods. “This sport is very interesting,” said the Russian Nicolai Volodin after he came 76th in 2017. “Chess on ice, you could say.”
There are certainly more meaningless things to do on ice, as contestants of this week’s IceSnowFootball World Cup will surely discover. The event has attracted four star-studded sides to the Swiss town of Arosa, including Stéphane Chapuisat from the host nation, Germany’s Torsten Frings and Mario Basler, Spain’s Gaizka Mendieta and, somehow finding himself in a global all-stars squad, Danny Mills. All will attempt to play the game on the unforgiving terrain of an Alpine ice rink covered in snow, and though it must be extremely hard for players to keep their footing in such conditions, anyone who watched Neymar’s performances in Russia last year will appreciate that the same is sometimes true on perfectly-manicured grass, only without the obvious excuse.
Those in search of something a little less prone to melting or falling over should look instead to Las Vegas on 23 January, when the Bricklayer World Championship will be not so much played as laid. To the outsider this looks like the undoubted highlight of the industry conference it is crowbarred into, thrillingly entitled World of Concrete, and is apparently known as the “Super Bowl of Masonry”. It involves two-man teams attempting to build a 26ft 8in, double wythe brick wall over the course of a single hour. The biggest wall wins, though “a team’s final brick count may be adjusted down if judges detect workmanship infractions”.
This sounds like exactly the event José Mourinho has been working towards in recent years, his career having turned into an exercise in putting up barriers both on the pitch and off it, ending up with something curiously like a double wythe wall in that observers increasingly discerned a big gap in the middle where something meaningful might have been. Less promisingly, his final months at Old Trafford were practically littered with workmanship infractions.
Football, like most sports, is an inherently competitive endeavour, but as the Bricklayer World Championship suggests, increasingly there is nothing humans will not turn into some kind of battle. Witness the first of this month’s cookery-related contests, the 2019 World Championship Scotch Pie Awards, whose winners will be announced on 15 January. It takes a bit of cheek to apply the word “world” to a competition with three English finalists, 47 from Scotland and none from anywhere else, or to associate it with 2019 when the pies were both cooked and judged last November, but this is the world we live in.
The Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie is a step up in seriousness. Teams from 21 countries will head to Lyon this month to create a range of frozen and baked morsels over 10 hours of remorseless kitchen-based action. This year among the required products is a honey biscuit, included because, according to the event’s president, Philippe Rigollot, “we considered it fitting to use the fame of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie to further a cause as noble and important as the defence of bees, who are true sentinels of our environment”. This is a noble goal, though whoever decided a good way to further the cause of bees would be to steal their honey and use it to make biscuits was almost certainly more interested in biscuits than bees. Still, these aren’t the World Beekeeping Awards – we’ve got to wait until September for those.