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Handball: Prieto is ready to pick it up and run with it

It is played by 20 million people. Now a Frenchman – not Thierry Henry – is giving Team GB a helping hand for 2012

A fortnight ago, while England were shilly-shallying their way to a 1-1 draw with the United States, another British national team were jubilantly celebrating their first-ever victory in a competitive match, which for them was the equivalent of winning the World Cup final.

After four years of hurt, Britain's men's handball team finally delivered the goods at a packed Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, a dramatic 33-32 win over Bulgaria with virtually the last touch of their European Championship qualification match.

Although earlier, expected defeats by Cyprus and Estonia had ruled out any chance of reaching the finals, it was the most significant milestone yet on the road to the 2012 Olympics, and one which the British team had targeted since their inception in 2006.

"The perfect stepping stone," declared their Serbian coach, Dragan Djukic. "Maybe we aren't completely ready but this showed we are on the way. Sometimes the lessons are very painful but to improve you have to play the better teams and learn from the defeats, even if there are many."

The story of British handball is one of experiment and sacrifice. Few cheered louder than minority sports when London won the right to stage the 2012 Games because it presented a showcase for their undervalued wares. Handball is a perfect example: never played before here at international level, it enjoys the host nation's automatic right to an Olympic place.

So a team had to be assembled from scratch. UK Sport spent £3 million in funding, initially advertising for athletes from other sports – or almost anyone tallish and athletic – to try their hand at handball, an amalgam of basketball and rugby with an essence of water polo (without the water). There were 5,000 applicants.

Lorraine Brown, British Handball's performance director, explains: "Our athletes are very young and mainly from different sporting backgrounds; some from the natural talent pool we had in the game in the UK clubs, those who were born here and went overseas where they picked up the game in places like Scandinavia and Germany, and the others who have transferred from other sports like football, basketball, rugby, even American football.

"It's going to be interesting to see how this progresses over the next two years. It can be done, as the Koreans showed back in Seoul when they transferred players from other sports into a handball team and won gold and silver in the men's and women's events.

"Most of our players are full-time and many of them have made huge sacrifices, giving up good jobs, education and families, some getting themselves into a lot of debt just for the Olympic ticket, which, of course, is not guaranteed."

A typical British handballer is Sebastien Prieto, 23, who has dual nationality (French father and English mother) and was brought up in the south of France where he played handball at school. He now lives in Kent and gave up his job in insurance after answering the UK Sport advert.

"It wasn't an easy decision," he says. "I talked to my family, my work colleagues and my boss and they all agreed that the Olympics could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Although I am quite young, I am one of the senior players in the team, one of the originals from when it was formed in 2006. I play on the right wing and really I am mainly there to finish and score goals. In my position you have to be very agile and very fast.

"It is a very physical game, you rarely come out without bruising. There's a lot of body-checking, although you cannot tackle from behind. There's a sin-bin and it's in pretty regular use."

Since joining Team GB, he has progressed to play professionally in Denmark and Germany's Bundesliga. He is about to join a Norwegian club "but there is not much money in handball". Does he have any regrets about not opting to play for France, the world, European and Olympic handball champions (even without the assistance of Thierry Henry)? "No, I've always supported Britain, and on top of that they [France] have got the best in my position in the world. I don't think I could have got anywhere near the team."

Team GB have a squad of 26 men, and 14 will go to the Games. Several have spent time learning the game at a handball academy in Denmark and playing with Danish teams. Says Brown: "The handball family around the world have been very good to us as they see the formation of a GB team from a country which has never had a handball tradition as a very interesting project."

The biggest success for the British women's team was qualifying for the European Championships to play against the Continental elite. One significant victory last year was over the Faroe Islands, which may sound quaint but in a previous encounter England lost by 42 goals. For the men it was a friendly victory over Belgium followed by that stunner against Bulgaria.

Handball, which will have its own temporary arena in the Olympic Park, is seven-a-side with a ball roughly half the size of a football and hockey-sized goals. Although only an estimated 5,000 play it in the UK, it is one of the world's biggest team games with 20 million players and 800,000 clubs in 170 countries, and it's big enough in Germany and Scandinavia to attract as much prime TV time as football.

"When we appear in the Olympics I think the British public will fall in love with the game," says Prieto. "It is a sport that reflects very much the British mentality with contact, end-to-end action and a lot of goals."

Hands up, then, for handball.

British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.uk