The Sports World's Best-Kept Secret
What do you get when you mix soccer, water polo, hockey and basketball? A game that moves quickly, from one end of the court to the other, with dribbling, ball movement, high-flying leaps, tricky shots, lots of scoring and spectacular goalie saves.
Call it handball, European handball, Olympic handball or team handball.
By any name, it's athletic, competitive, intense and exciting to watch. For millions around the world — especially Europeans — it's fun to play and coach, too. But the game is nearly nonexistent on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
"The 'best-kept secret in the sporting world' is a common theme with our sport," said Bob Djokovich, co-chairman of the board of directors of USA Team Handball (USATH), the national governing body for the sport.
USATH and its member clubs want to grow the sport across the U.S. Don't be surprised if they succeed.
1. The Challenge
In the manner similar to soccer years ago — and still true to a lesser extent today — immigrant and ethnic enclaves make up handball’s core constituency. Over the decades, soccer’s reach extended into suburbs around the United States. Handball faces other challenges.
"I don't think we are at a point where soccer was decades ago, as we have not been able to penetrate the younger ages as successfully as soccer ... or water polo, lacrosse, etc.," Djokovich said. "One of the reasons for the lack of success is we can't offer scholarships, so vertical movement is limited. When USATH focused on the youth in the past, we typically lost the best athletes to other sports."
2. A World of Opportunity
As all sports governing bodies do, the International Handball Federation (IHF) always is looking to increase the game’s appeal. In some parts of the Americas, handball thrives as a secondary or tertiary sport, usually behind soccer or in some cases, baseball. More typically, it falls somewhere lower in the sports pecking order.
At the high end, Argentina, Brazil and Chile have the most noteworthy programs. Each country sent a national team to the IHF’s biennial men’s world championship, which took place Jan. 10-27 in Germany and Denmark. Paraguay sent a team to the 2017 women’s world championship in Germany. Uruguay often finds itself in the mix at qualifying tournaments, too.
The 2019 men’s world championship tournament took place before enthusiastic crowds, and Denmark won its first world title, at home in Herning, where a packed house of more than 15,000 fans witnessed a 31-22 triumph over Norway.
The tournament made history beyond the athletic realm, too, as Korea competed with a unified team.
Denmark also won the 2021 edition. That tournament was held in Egypt and played behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2023 world men's handball championship is in Poland and Sweden from Jan. 11-29. It is the 28th handball world championship, which started in 1938 and is organized by the International Handball Federation.
3. Made for the USA
Here in the United States, NBC carried some of the 2019 world men's handball championship games on its Olympic Channel. Still, only those fortunate few whose cable outlets or satellite carriers offer the Olympic Channel could see the action.
Handball lovers got their fixes with both men’s and women’s competitions at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and later in the year with the IHF women’s world championship in Japan. Then, of course, there were the Olympics in Tokyo.
Still, any mention of handball throughout most of the Americas — especially in the United States — will draw only blank looks. Hope for handball exists, though, as some folks have "discovered" the sport.
"[Handball] occurs every Olympic cycle, and especially in the past eight years where NBC affiliates have provided a steady stream of coverage," Djokovich said. "The sport seems to resonate with the American public in that our website hits typically spike by 15 to 20 times whenever the sport is televised."
4. A Lot to Like
Described as soccer played with the hands, water polo without water and even hockey without sticks, handball also combines elements of basketball, rugby and gridiron football.
"And I would add baseball and lacrosse to that list as well," said Martin Bilello, youth development director for the SF CalHeat Team Handball Club, which serves a growing number of enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Honestly, team handball players have been historically multisport players. A multitude of skills can be adapted to a team handball player, and athletes that have several skills are usually the ones that pick it up the fastest."
5. Playing the Game
Played in 30-minute halves, handball consists of two teams of seven players each, including a goalkeeper. As in hockey, teams have the option of substituting goalies for an extra attacker.
As in soccer, goalies wear colors different than their teammates, as they are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their feet — at least within an area in front of their goal designated by a six-meter arc.
Goalies also are the only players allowed within this area, though opposing attackers can enter in midair but must shoot before touching the floor again.
6. The Goal: Scoring Goals
Scoring happens when a player shoots an inflated ball (circumferences of 23-24 inches for men and 21-22 inches for women) into their opponent’s goal, which measures three meters wide by two meters high.
Whichever team scores the higher number of goals wins, though as with soccer, non-playoff and non-championship games may end in a tie.
7. The Playing Area
Games happen on courts 40 meters long by 20 meters wide (slightly more than 131 feet by slightly less than 66). Usually played indoors at the highest levels, handball also can take place on outdoor courts or fields.
Other variations of the game exist, most notably, beach handball. Video even exists of a snow handball tournament taking place in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city that bills itself as "The End of the World."
8. Even More to Like
For critics of the low-scoring games common to soccer, handball offers plenty of goals. Those griping of the inflated scoring systems of football and basketball will appreciate that each goal counts for just one point.
As in basketball, players must dribble the ball — one dribble for every three steps in handball’s case. But as players can only hold the ball for three seconds at a time, teams prefer passing as the more effective and efficient form of movement.
9. Still, It's Not an Easy Game
Though handball’s concepts and rules appear straightforward, players must — as in other sports — rely on more than just athletic ability to become proficient.
"One thing to warn people about before trying team handball," Bilello added, "is that most athletes believe they will be great at it right away just because they are great at other sports. It actually takes some time to get good at this sport, no matter who you are, as it is full of little details and timing concepts that can trip you over until you master them.
"But with enough time and work, they can surely succeed."
10. A Touch of History
Some historians trace handball’s roots to ancient Rome. Similar games are said to have existed in medieval France and among the Inuit of Greenland in the Middle Ages.
Parallel handball-like games existed in 19th-century Denmark, Germany, Ukraine and what is now the Czech Republic.
The game we know today began to take shape in Northern Europe toward the end of the 19th century, with Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway leading the charge.
11. Evolution of the Game
Handball made its first Olympic appearance as an 11-a-side outdoor game on a soccer field the 1936 Berlin Games. This form of handball made its only other appearance as a demonstration sport in Helsinki 16 years later.
As the years progressed, the current seven-a-side indoor game became the overwhelmingly popular version (the last outdoor championship took place in 1966), and became an Olympic sport for the first time in 1972.
Women have competed as handball Olympians since 1976.
12. An Outdoor Option
Most North American gymnasiums, made to accommodate basketball, don’t have handball’s space requirements.
Moving the game outdoors remains an option, as most schools and parks have sufficient yard space. Asphalt or concrete might not make for ideal surfaces given the number of falls common to the game, though there are companies that manufacture special surfaces just for handball.
Grass or all-weather surfaces offer more options.
13. Getting It Done
"Gym space is the biggest hurdle we are facing right now when growing the sport at schools, but we have managed to play on basketball courts and have created full-sized team handball courts out on the blacktop areas of schools" Bilello said. "We are very lucky to count on the Ray Gehrke gym in Fremont [an East San Francisco Bay community], a full-sized, permanently marked team handball court that we use to host our tournaments over the weekends.
"But we do encourage schools to find the best way they can of having a court, since what we are really after is for the kids to experience the sport."
14. Targeting the Universities
USATH, meanwhile, looks to grow the game over the next decade, and beyond, starting at the university level.
"In 2018, USATH developed a 10-year strategic plan with an end goal of top-six [Olympic] finish for both the men and women in 2028," Djokovich said. "Of equal or greater importance is sustaining and growing competitions and leagues around the country.
"We have initiated a program to target growth at the university level in four geographies in the U.S. in 2019. As opposed to trying the sport across the entire country, an emphasis on four geographies will allow us to better manage and market the sport at the local level."
15. Implementing the Plan
"We are targeting universities for a variety of reasons: One is that the current university athletes will be at their athletic peak in 2028," Djokovich continued. "Another is that we think establishment of sustained collegiate leagues will start to feed down into high schools and junior highs as the athletes have something to aspire to.
"The plan also includes agreement with multiple European nations to invite our athletes to compete professionally in Europe, so there is upward mobility for the university athletes that aren't going to the NBA or WNBA."
16. Greater Exposure
The U.S. has competed in six Olympics in handball (1936, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1996) but has not qualified since 1996, when it qualified as the host nation. That's a long time to go without a rooting interest.
"We have been working with the International Handball Federation and various networks for broadcasting the sport in the U.S.," Djokovich added. "NBC agreed to broadcast some of the games from [the 2019] world championships, which we think will lead to more future broadcasts and more engagement.
"Our plan [involves] broadcast of international events for the first couple years, with a transition to broadcast of domestic events as the quality of the domestic product increases."
USATH, long struggling to raise funds, also hopes the plan will lead to more sponsorships.
17. Top Players
As in any sport, top players can increase our appreciation for handball. Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen scored a tournament-high 72 goals at the 2019 men’s world championships, which earned him best player honors.
Six-time world champion France currently finds itself in a retooling mode, but Nikola Karabatic still thrills crowds with his strength, power, skill and style.
Argentina’s Diego Simonet arguably is the top player from the Americas, though an injury kept him out of the world championship.
18. The Typical Player?
Diego Simonet, in a 2012 South American ESPN interview, said the average player was 190 centimeters tall (between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3).
But smaller players can excel at the sport. France’s Michaël Guigou (5'10") and Guillaume Joli (5'10") each has contributed to title winners at the European, Olympic and world championship levels.
Víctor Tomás (5'10"), who played for Spain’s 2013 world championship-winning team, also has put together an impressive career, as did Swedish retired player Ljubomir Vranjes (5'5").
19. Great for Viewing
Handball has long enjoyed small, though significant, followings in the nation’s immigrant and ethnic neighborhoods.
The New York City Team Handball Club took it a step further, having been founded by United Nations employees in 1973. As with other handball clubs around the nation, it remains cosmopolitan, a "United Nations of sport" today.
"Home Court,” a documentary by Monica Alba and Ben Teitelbaum, tells the story of the club (which had players from five continents) as it prepared for the national championships in 2012. Very much worth watching.
20. Moving Forward
"We are very invested in developing the youth game," Bilello said. "We believe that's the cornerstone of any serious effort of developing the sport, and this goes from elementary school ages all the way to the college game. ... We know that when [kids] start playing [handball], they fall in love with it."
For more information and to find a handball club near you, visit the USA Team Handball website.