“To succeed through performance” is the motto of Switzerland’s Concordia Handball Academy, which was founded in 2020. The location is right next to the Swiss competence centre for high-performance athletes and research in the city of Cham, OYM – or ‘on your marks’. That connection is critical, as academy players have access to OYM infrastructure and support including specialised training facilities, health and nutrition advice, and scientific research alongside handball lessons in their own training hall.
“It was our vision to bring Swiss players closer to the top of the world,” says Simona Cavallari, head of the academy.
“By implementing this academy, we were pioneers in Swiss team sport, none of the other federations had an academy like this,” adds Ingo Meckes, sports director of the Swiss Handball Federation.
“In men’s handball, the infrastructures and financial opportunities of the clubs were much better, our talents had constantly qualified for major international events, but in women’s handball, it was different,” says Meckes.
As there are no professional clubs or professional players in Swiss woman’s handball, it was the idea to bring the biggest talents together in this academy to combine handball and school on a professional level.
“The Dutch academy in Papendal was our role model. We were in close contact with the Dutch federation as we planned and started this academy,” says Meckes.
Around 14 players live with guest families in Cham. They train together and have school lessons in the academy between Monday and Friday afternoons, before returning to their clubs for final training sessions and matches at weekends.
The age of the academy players is between 14 and 20. They are either finishing school, or have started an apprenticeship. Concordia fully supports the combination of high-performance sport and work. Alongside the infrastructure and the concept of the academy, the main cornerstones are to have professional and experienced coaches and support from clubs.
“Without the support of the clubs you cannot do a project like this, but from the first days of planning the clubs were involved and fully support the academy,” says Meckes.
The first head coach of the academy was Dane Martin Albertsen – at that time in 2020 already coach of the Swiss women’s national team and with the experience of coaching big clubs such as Viborg and Bietigheim. By having this professional coaching in all aspects – technique, athleticism and individual development – the Swiss female youth and junior teams improved and started qualifying for major events.
By 2022 the first academy players, such as Nuria Bucher, had made their way on to the women’s national team, which then sensationally booked their ticket for their very first EHF EURO in 2022. The core plan was to have a competitive team in 2024, when Switzerland is joint host of the Women’s EHF EURO alongside Austria and Hungary.
By looking at the current Swiss women’s squad, which starts their EHF EURO Cup campaign against Norway alongside the start of qualification, it is clear many talents have already made the step from academy to international.
“If you train at the academy, you cannot only become women’s national team player, but you have the chance to become a professional player abroad, this is the motivation,” says Albertsen.
“You need about eight years to build a new generation, now we are already faster in this process,” adds Meckes.
Unfortunately for the academy and the national team, Albertsen left Switzerland this summer to become the new coach of EHF Champions League Women finalists FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria.
In his place, Norwegian Knut Ove Joa will take over the women’s national team on its way towards the EHF EURO on home ground, while young Swiss coach Manuel Schellmann is the new head coach of the academy and the U20 team, which had also been coached by Albertsen and which includes many academy players.
“The development of Swiss women’s handball is incredible and impressive, I am sure that this academy will create more and more top players. Those players and their way to the top are in the focus of our work,” says Schellmann, who will be assisted by former national team player Karin Weigelt.
“We can be absolutely proud of our achievements at the academy. We see that it was the right thing to do,” says Meckes.
So much so, that Switzerland plans to start a boys’ academy in Cham in 2025.