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Day 65: New Sport Experience – Team Handball

October 10, 2010

September’s foray into the world of Australian Rules Football was one of the Year Without Football’s most fulfilling ventures.  I enjoyed enriching my knowledge of a sport already on my radar yet still on the periphery.  The ensuing confusion and intrigue regarding the replay of its top league’s championship game provided one of those interminable moments that sports fans crave: something you’ve never seen before or never thought possible. The experience was so enjoyable and unique that I’m attempting to teach the sport (with modified rules for safety reasons) to the fourth-graders as part of the physical education portion of my student-teaching assignment.

Growing up on the East Coast, I was lucky to have plenty of P.E. teachers introduce the class to new sports, forcing us as students to adapt to new sets of rules and guidelines with each new sport.  Every year or so, our class would focus an entire 2-month unit on “European Handball.”  The concept seemed engaging enough; limited movement once you possess the ball, no players inside an arc surrounding the goal.  It felt like an adaptable combination of basketball and hockey.

About a week ago, I received a comment from John Ryan, a contributor for, suggesting I give the sport a chance.  John informed me that, much like soccer, team handball has domestic leagues across the continent, which promotes its top teams to an annual, concurrent European Champions’ League.  Europe’s overseeing body, the European Handball Federation, streams an on-demand “Game of the Week” with English-language commentary, perfect for an introduction to the sport at a professional, organized level.  I was aware that the sport competes at the Olympic level, but wasn’t familiar with handball at the club level.

First, the basics.  7 aside including a goaltender.  Once you possess the ball, you’ve got 3 seconds to get rid of it.  You can move three steps, then you must dribble before you take another three steps.  No players are allowed to step inside the arc surrounding the net.  Physical contact is not allowed from behind or the sides, but ENCOURAGED from the front.  Playing surface is similar in size to a basketball court.  Substitutions occur at any time without official notification.  Two thirty-minute halves with a 10-minute intermission, so games rarely last more than an hour and a half.

At the national and club level, Spain tends to be the traditional major power alongside Germany.  However, the Slavic and former Soviet nations also tend to prove perennially strong.  France defeated Iceland for the Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics while defending European Club champions THW Kiel of Germany have made the title game each of the last four seasons. The game I’ll be sitting in on will be a Group Phase contest between French side Montpelier Agglomération HB and Hungarian champions MKB Veszprém KC.

Montpellier HB.png VSKC Veszprém.png!!!!!(?????)


  • The broadcast kicks off with standard NBA-style intro light show & cheerleaders.  Veszprem supporters are “handball-mad”; a 5,000 seat arena, fans armed with horns (think “baby vuvuzuelas”).  I’m half-expecting White Goodman to storm onto the court.

  • Both teams stand for anthems…does the Handball Champions League have its own anthem?!  It’s weak that UEFA has an anthem, but at least it’s a good fit.  This sounds like the coda to a Viking opera.
  • As the fans roll out an endzone tifo, the announcer memorializes a recent Hungarian toxic sludge slide disaster.  7 people killed in a toxic mudslide?  HOW IS THIS THE FIRST I’M HEARING ABOUT THIS?
  • Hungarian National Anthem…not played over the PA but sung aloud by the spectators.  That happened at a Beanpot Consolation once, but only because they decided the consolation game wasn’t significant enough to warrant a Star-Spangled Banner.  Kinda reminds me of any Canadian-based Stanley Cup playoff game. [insert edmonton youtube clip]
  • The pace on a possession starts out very methodical and tempered, like basketball.  Once teams start trading fast-breaks, the game is about as fast as ice hockey.  There’s hardly any hesitation time once a team scores; the goalie fishes the ball out of the back of the net and launches it quickly into his opponent’s half.
  • The term “spectator” should NEVER be used to describe Europeans who attend sporting events.  They’re not there to simply watch the game; they throw their full energies toward creating hostile environments for visitors.
  • The announcer begins to bemoan a blatant dive where a player struck in the shoulder begins to grab his face.  He admonishes this player not because it’s unsportsmanlike, but because it’s insensitive to a Polish player who LOST AN EYE during a match.  WHAT!??!
  • I’ve always felt that football players who couldn’t get a break in the U.S. or Canada should try and establish themselves overseas in rugby.  Likewise, I feel like if you’re a basketball player with some skills but can’t latch on, team handball in Europe could be a viable option…
  • Despite trailing for much of the 1st half, the Hungarian crowd has been hot the entire contest.  Everything I know about Hungary, I learned from Julian Rubenstein’s wonderfully artful novelization of hockey goaltender/bank robber/folk hero Attila Ambrus, The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber. Easily one of my top 5 favorite sports-related reads of all-time.
  • A defensive shot block attempt, depending on your proximity to your opponent, could quickly become a PUNCH IN YOUR FACE.
  • I hate making continental generalizations, but how come Europe is the only part of the world that can heal sports injuries with MAGIC SPRAY?!
  • Leads of two or three goals are seen as heavy advantages; it’s assumed that teams will score each time they hold possession.  This is truly a game where goaltenders decide the end result more than anyone else on the floor.

If you’ve got 90 minutes to kill, check this game out; down to the wire, a constant chase and a compelling narrative.  This particular chapter is a great example of the best the sport has to offer.  Veszprem might be a good starter team to follow, but there are enough teams spread throughout Europe that if you have any type of connected heritage, you’ll find a team to follow rather quickly.

If you’ve got any additional sports or leagues to recommend, shoot me a comment or e-mail and I’ll give it a write-up in the near future as part of the New Sport Experience series.


One Comment
  1. Brendan O'Dowd permalink
    October 11, 2010 1:15 AM

    Seeing the court reminded me about futsal, another pretty exciting and fluid sport.

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