Love it? A Norwegian would

John Carlin takes in an Olympic handball match - a cross between football, basketball and Gladiators
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The Independent Online
It is pouring with rain and the queue at the metal detector is 40 yards long, but no force in the world is going to stop Mr and Mrs Pluff of North Carolina from supporting the home team in the US-Hungary Olympic women's handball game.

The white of Mrs Pluff's drenched Stars and Stripes shirt has turned skin-pink. She is battling heroically to light a cigarette.

We strike up a conversation. This handball business, can they explain to me what it is all about? I've never been to a game in my life. Mrs Pluff glances at her husband. "Sure," he says. "Looks to me like a mixture of soccer, football and basketball." He leaves it at that, so I turn for further enlightenment to Mrs Pluff, who is fiddling with a little chrome American flag pinned to her right ear.

"Truth is," she says, "I don't understand a lot of these sports. But we cheer for anybody wearing USA."

Which is probably what people in most countries do during the Olympic Games, I reflect as I arrive at the indoor handball arena, deep in the bowels of a vast concrete slab called the Georgia World Congress Center, three minutes into the game. Hungary are 3-0 up. But the packed crowd - the official attendance, I would later discover, is 7,063 - are not losing heart. "U-S-A! U-S-A!" they roar. Beneath the din I hear another sound. Something strange. A tinny, rattly tinkling. It is coming from a sector of the stands directly across the pitch from me where a block of fans are sitting in regimental order, wearing identical burgundy red shirts. Could those be bells? When Hungary go 4-0 up and the "U-S-A" chants subside a little, I make out the sound more distinctly. Yes, they are bells. Cowbells. I can see them now. Each of the red shirts is wearing one, dangling from the neck like an Olympic medal.

Curious enough to discover there is a such a thing as an organised core of American handball fans. But the ritual of the cowbells? The oddly discordant suggestion of a nervous Alpine herd?

The mystery is revealed when a man wearing a helmet with horns rears up from amidst the throng, waving a thick stubby sword. The Viking is draped from head to foot in the flag of Norway. With the timing only years of practice can bring, to the rhythm of the sword, cowbells in perfect syncopation, they chant what I take to be "Nor-WAY! Nor-WAY!" in Norwegian.

Whereupon the USA score their first goal; the voice of a female announcer yells that the scorer is "Number seven, Sharon Cain!"; a male voice translates the thrilling news into French; and the orchestral cries of the plucky Norwegians are drowned out by the rapturous celebrations of the majority American contingent, who in turn are blasted out of existence by the loudspeaker system and the epic strains of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA".

Down on the pitch, seemingly oblivious to all this madness, 14 female athletes are engaged in the deadly serious business of trying to win an Olympic competition. They are playing on what looks like a shrunken football pitch with a synthetic, aquamarine surface. The goals have nets and they are square shaped, about seven feet by seven feet. There is a goalkeeper and the six outfield players all play defence and attack. The ball is bigger than a tennis ball, but smaller than a football. To advance with the ball, you must bounce it, as in basketball.

The object of the game, which is played in two 30-minute halves, is to stick the ball into the opposition's net more often than the opposition sticks it into yours. The strategy is to pass the ball around quickly - in the case of the Hungarians, like slick rugby threequarters - and open gaps in the defence. Defenders are allowed to block and intercept but, again as in basketball, not to trip opponents or snatch the ball from their hands. The skill comes in the shooting, which usually involves hurling the ball from high above the shoulder, like a bowler in cricket. Successful goal-scorers have the ability to jump high and throw the ball with accuracy and speed.

Ezter Matefi, a 30-year-old divorced mother, is the star of the Hungarian team. Combining the cold eye for goal of Alan Shearer with the gravity- defying ability to hang in the air of Michael Jordan, she puts nine goals past the hapless US goalkeeper in the first half, each greeted with a burst of music from the loudspeakers. Ten or 20-second snatches from, for example, "Don't you love her madly" by the Doors, "YMCA" by the Village People, and the theme from Star Wars. American attacks are accompanied by what sounds like the music from Jaws when the shark is about to attack. On the rare occasions when the Americans succeed in scoring, the music is twice as loud as when the Hungarians score. The crowd, save for the Norwegians, are losing interest.

I notice that half a dozen men sitting adjacent to the press box are rivetted not to the handball but to a television monitor just down from my desk. The Cuba-USA baseball game is on.

"What," I ask one of the baseball fans, "do you think of the handball?"

"The what?"

I point down to the pitch.

"Oh, that. I dunno, but I'll tell you what, if it was boxing, the referee would stop it."

He is right. This is no game. It is a massacre. The only comfort the American women can possibly be drawing as they go into the break 19-8 down is that they are having a learning experience. I head off for a hot dog and meet a young couple whose faces are painted red and blue. They belong to the Norwegian contingent. What are they doing here? They love handball, they say, but, more important, they're getting warmed up, honing their war cries, because after the USA-Hungary game Norway play Germany. Norway are not like the US team, who are "really bad". They're red hot at handball. They won the silver medal in the Barcelona Olympics, second to Korea, who beat them to the gold in 1988, too.

It turns out that handball is a big game in Continental Europe, parts of Asia and, in a recent development, Africa. Someone handed me a free copy of magazine called Wham, the World Handball Magazine, and I discovered that the International Handball Federation has 138 member countries; that while the Europeans dominate, the vice-president of the IHF is an Egyptian; and that the president of the handball federation of the Central African Republic is the country's prime minister. Sadly, the Central African Republic were unable to participate in the Olympic tournament owing to a shortage of cash. The same goes for Togo, Uganda and Chad, among a number of other mad-keen African handball nations which, I also learnt from Wham, have been invaded in recent years by coaching missionaries from Scandinavia.

As have the United States, whose coach is a Swede by the name of Claes Hellgren. He said something to his team at half-time because when the US seven come out for the second half they are like women possessed. The American fans - who you would have thought might have taken off at half- time to catch a bit of Greco-Roman wrestling, are going nuts. In the first five minutes, the USA score four goals to Hungary's one. The referee, a portly, moustachioed German kitted out like a football referee, is dishing out yellow cards to the Hungarians like confetti at a wedding. The Hungarian goal is under siege, the keeper performing heroics. Jaws is back with a vengeance. The Miami Sound Machine, Michael Jackson and Metallica are celebrating each goal. Two giant electronic screens flash an order. "Let's have some noise!" The crowd respond. The screen says, "I can't hear you!' They scream louder.

Overwhelmed by the Big Brotherish fervour, a Hungarian woman falls to the ground. The referee blows his whistle. Two medics rush on. A new tune strikes up. "Obladdi, obladda, life goes on." The US crowd joins in, so do the Norwegians - stomping in step, cowbells shrill as fire engines. The Viking is making stabbing motions with his sword. It's like the Roman Colosseum in here.

The Hungarian recovers, two youths like Wimbledon ball-boys rush on with towels and wipe the sweat (or was it the blood?) off the spot where she fell, and the game resumes. But there is no relief for the Magyars. Matefi has faded out of the game, but the US striker Sharon Cain, who does "personal training" for a living, is scoring at will, having spent the first half floundering around like Andy Cole. The USA are within four goals of the Hungarians. The score is 25-21 and there are seven minutes to go. Anything is possible. The Hungarian coach, a white-haired gentleman named Laszlo, calls for a time-out. He shouts and gesticulates at his team.

The tongue-lashing works. The Hungarians slow the game down, play possession handball. Now it's the American women who are frustrated, who are getting the yellow cards. And a a red one. "Carte rouge pour numero trois," the male French announcer says, but otherwise the loudspeaker is silent. No music now, only a torrent of boos. But there are no complaints from "numero trois". She trots off to the benches without even a shrug. In fact, not once in the game did anyone protest a decision by the referee.

For all the efforts of the spectacle's unseen organisers to generate the frenzy of a professional basketball game, the action on the pitch remained steadfastly, refreshingly Corinthian.

This I discovered after the game, which Hungary ended up winning 30-24, when I went for a stroll around the back of the Georgia World Congress building. By a lorry loading bay, where men were unpacking crates of Coke, I came across three members of the Hungarian team. They were chatting like office workers on a tea-break. Two of them were smoking cigarettes.