For some people discovering that Great Britain has a handball team must be the equivalent to the disbelief felt when Jamaica turned up at Calgary with a bobsleigh. Handball is what Europeans do after all. It is not a game for Anglo Saxons. And whilst even the kindest voice wouldn’t say that seven years of direct Olympic-related funding has turned the UK into a handball haven it’s doubtful that without the kickstart of London 2012 whether there would have even been a Great Britain team on the court today let alone a crowd of several hundred there to watch them.
The aim of British Handball at this stage is not to be embarrassed in the Olympics. To that end handball has benefitted massively from the talent spotting programmes launched in 2005 and in the early years could send its whole squad over to the continent to get battle-hardened. Money is apparently tighter now but the overwhelming majority of the squad still ply their trade in European leagues with the remainder seemingly based with Salford. Those European clubs however are not necessarily members of the elite leagues – for example the charismatic goalie Bobby White is with Valence who are in the French third division. In contrast the Austrians have their own well followed national league in addition to team members earning their corn in the Bundesliga (which my precisely one month of following handball has taught me is pretty decent). It would have taken a miracle for Britain to win today and, following three earlier defeats in this World Championship qualifying programme, that miracle only looked likely for the merest seconds as the hosts took a 1-0 lead and held Austria 3-3 before the visitors ran away with the game. In the end it finished 40-24 but Britain had more than earned the generous applause of the crowd at the end – this is a tough and unforgiving game after all.
Having only seen internet streams before seeing the game firsthand today was revealing. The sturdiness required in defence becomes more obvious as does the set moves to unlock it – very similar to watching a fast break establish itself in ice hockey and then pass across the face of goal for an opening. I was also surprised by the speed of the game (and also that the ball is effectively coated in superglue which at least explains the superhuman handling of the magnificent Norwegian ladies team) and the sometime brutality of the hits. For a game in which goals often fly in faster than one a minute on average I was surprised again by how hard it is to actually score.
Great Britain have a four team tournament on home soil coming up around Easter before the Olympics in the summer; the women’s team have a European Championship qualifier against Poland up in March. For Austria they now have two wins from two in their qualification hunt and will now have two matches against Israel to decide who goes through to the final stage play-offs. No matter how they do or what happens to the Great Britain team after the Olympics I’m now fully converted. A personal return on the gazillion pound cost of the games that makes me very happy indeed.