London 2012: Just What The Hell Is Handball?

The starting pistol has been fired, London 2012 is underway, and we're here to give you the low down on those sports you've got no idea how to play. First up: Handball.
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The starting pistol has been fired, London 2012 is underway, and we're here to give you the low down on those sports you've got no idea how to play. First up: Handball.

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Many of us dream of being a professional athlete but very few ever make it.  Fewer still have the requisite skill to get paid handsomely for what is, I’m sorry to say, moving about a bit and sometimes getting a bit of a sweat on.

The world’s biggest sporting jamboree, or, for super-cynics, marketing junket, has rolled into town and try as you might, you will most likely be reduced to tears as some no mark from Poulton-le-Fylde or Didcot hobbles across the finish line, gallantly picking up the bronze in a sport you would normally skip past – and even then, only if you had Eurosport.  Unlike most festivals of sporting prowess, this isn’t a single-sport, specialist spectacle; the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Ashes all have their die-hard and casuals fans.

Even after the London 2012 games are over, there are several sports that nobody will really give two hoots about afterwards, which is a shame.  If you couldn’t name the British runner-up in the canoe slalom World Cup (hello to you, David Florence) before the game, what chance will there be of a sporting legacy across the fan-o-sphere afterwards.  However, there is one sport where Team GB not only have no chance of winning, little chance of establishing a new dawn in their game’s popularity but have only won three competitive matches in their entire history.

Handball is an incredible sporting mash-up; imagine a slightly longer basketball court with two field hockey goals at either end.  Two teams of six outfield players and one goalkeeper throw a ball that is between the size of a Size 2 or Size 3 football to each other with the objective being to throw the ball into the opponents net.  You can throw the ball like you can in netball and can only take three steps when you receive it, unless you dribble it like a basketball.  The technique of a shot is something between pitching a baseball and bowling a cricket ball; right-handed players need to get side on, jump with their left leg, snap their right shoulder back and fire the ball on target before they hit the ground.  It’s totally normal for players to end up face down on the floor pretty often.

Handball is an incredible sporting mash-up; imagine a slightly longer basketball court with two field hockey goals at either end.

Positionally, there’s less rigidity – you have a bank of six defenders, positioned around the D-shaped penalty area (known as the ‘zone’ or ‘crease’), protecting the goal from five attacker spread around the zone with one ‘Pivot’ (the kind of Duncan Ferguson / Alan Shearer of the sport) trying to disrupt the defence or create a chance.  Play has to be fast as you can get penalised for slow play and there is normally as much physical contact as football, but the umpires can be quite strict on any overly aggressive play, like holding or blocking a shot by getting in the way of the attacker’s arm.  Players can be sin binned or sent off, just like rugby.

Britain has never had a handball team of note – the men’s team were established in 1969 but didn’t win a game until they beat Ireland in a Friendly in 1978.  Their first competitive win was against the Faeroe Islands in a World Championship European Qualifier in 1984.  This was the same season in which they folded, to be reformed in 2008.  The reformation only took place off the back of winning the Olympic bid, whereby Team GB were granted an automatic qualification slot as hosts.   It took almost 2 years but the men won another competitive match (a European Qualifier against Bulgaria) and then, nine months later, they beat Italy.

Domestically, there used to be a real north v south split – the northern clubs had much stronger British players who had been taught in schools whereas the southern clubs had far more cosmopolitan line-ups.  The domestic leagues (Super 8 Mens League and National Female League) contain teams from Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Salford and there are further clubs in Bolton, Warrington and Formby.  In the south, Great Dane (now known as London GD) and Ruislip Eagles have been dominant forces – my former club, Olympia, where I was the first British-born player were in the National League 2 but, as with all minority sports, the next upheaval is just around the corner and it’s likely that the 2nd tier of men’s handball will be regional again.

It says a lot when, of the men’s squad, just one player competes in the UK whilst the rest compete at higher levels across Scandinavia, France and Switzerland.  Not only is the standard better, along with the facilities, broadcast coverage and funding but the salaries are more akin to professional sports like rugby and cricket.  To help create a Team GB, the British Handball Association created a programme where young men and women who were above a minimum height (6’ 1”) and had been successful at other sports were invited to trials sessions.  The successful players were then picked to form a team to compete in Denmark as part of a ‘zero to hero’ programme.

It says a lot when, of the men’s squad, just one player competes in the UK whilst the rest compete at higher levels across Scandinavia, France and Switzerland.

However, major funding cuts meant that players ended up being spread across Europe, playing for a variety of clubs.  German Bundesliga side TuSem Essen picked up the top 6 men from Team GB and women’s star Lyn Byl played for Bayer Leverkusen, where they competed against some of the best players in the world; the Germans take Handball very seriously!

The women take on Montenegro (19:30 27th July), Russia (14:30 30th July), Brazil (16:15 1st August), Angola, who they beat at the recent Olympic test event  (09:30 3rd August), and Croatia (16:15 5th August) and the men take on France, the reigning Olympic champions (19:00 29th July), Sweden (14:30 31st July), Argentina (16:15 2nd August), Tunisia (09:30 4th August) and Iceland (16:15 5th August).  It will be a minor miracle if either team were to qualify from their group.

But that’s yet another cynical view – if you look at what Team GB’s Handball programme has achieved in the past few years, where they have gone from a standing start to two teams that are competing with, albeit not beating, the best teams in the world, there is a hope, a tiny glimmer of hope, that they could really change the popularity of Team Handball for the better.

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