We had the opportunity to attend a game of European Handball in the German town of Baudsen. My friend’s first cousin (once-removed) plays on a men’s team there, but is currently out of action after knee surgery required to repair a handball injury. He and his family continue to support the team and so they invited us to attend a match. I didn’t know what to expect. I had barely heard of European Handball. I did play something called that once in gym class in high school, but I was equally thinking that we might be going to watch American handball which is similar to squash but you hit the ball with your hand rather than a racquet.
It turns out that we were there to see European Handball, also known as team handball or Olympic handball. It’s a team sport played in a gymnasium with 6 players plus a goal keeper per side. At either end of the playing area, which is about the size of a basketball court, the keepers guard their nets which are bigger than an ice hockey goal but smaller than a soccer net. The winning team is the one with the most goals after two 30 minute periods of play.
The game is fast, dynamic, and extremely physical, played by tall, big guys who can take a pounding. I would describe it as a cross between basketball, soccer, and lacrosse (but without the latter’s sticks or padding). The game is played with a ball approximately 20 centimeters in diameter, which looks like a small volleyball. It is covered with a slightly sticky resin to improve the grip, making it look dirty as it collects sweat and grime with use.
The teams run back and forth down the court, trying to get free of their defenders. Fast breaks are common. Players can hold the ball for 3 seconds before passing, dribbling, or shooting. After receiving the ball, they can take up to 3 steps without dribbling, and three more if they dribble. Once they stop dribbling, they may take a further 3 steps and then have 3 seconds to pass or shoot. if that sounds complicated, it looks much simpler in practice. Like in basketball, dribbling is kept to a minimum anyhow because passing is much quicker.
The real action happens at the 6 meter line, which extends in a semi-circle around the goal like the 3-point line in basketball. Neither defenders nor attackers are allowed to enter this zone. The offensive team wants to get as close to this line as possible and have a player in position and undefended to shoot on the opponent’s net. Like in basketball, they try to do this with a mix of rapid passing and quick changes of direction. To get as close as possible, more often than not, the shooter runs head long into the defenders and leaps into the air to shoot, often with disastrous consequences. More than once we saw a shooter slammed down to the gym floor on his back by the defenders.
We watched in a gym that had about 1 meter of space around the perimeter — so close that you could smell the action while simultaneously facing the very real threat of getting a ball in the face or a player in our laps. In typical German fashion, beer is sold in the school gym lobby to quench the throats of the screaming spectators, adding to the revelry.
Excited by the action, I went out onto the floor at half time to give it a try. The ball felt familiar (I played basketball and volleyball in high school), but a bit sticky. I could hold and bounce it well enough. And so I ran up to the 6 meter line, leapt in the air, threw the ball into the net, and pulled my right groin. Apparently European Handball is a young man’s game.