Welcome to the wacky world of handball

Jerome Taylor spends a day at the Copper Box stadium watching the surprising (and slightly sticky) hit sport that's got British fans hooked

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The Independent Online

The crowd is wild, the action is frenetic and the ball is sticky. Welcome to the wacky world of handball. It's mid afternoon in the Copper Box stadium and the roar coming out of the stands as Team GB take the floor is deafening. The fans are as raucous as any weekend football crowd but you can bet that for the vast majority of those watching this is the first time they have seen the sport in action.

Hugely popular in the non-English speaking world, handball was virtually unknown inside Britain. But suddenly the nation is in love. For the first time in Olympic history, Britain is fielding both men and women's handball team and we can't get enough.

Today saw the men's third match against Argentina. They lost 21-32 but put up a laudably stubborn resistance for a team that only formed six years ago. Both the men and women's team have been defeated in all their matches so far. The men were roundly beaten 44-15 by defending world champions France, and received a drubbing from Sweden 41-19. The women have lost to both Montenegro and Brazil and will face Angola tomorrow.

But while those matches may look disastrous on paper, no-one ever expected Britain to reach the podium. This is after all the first time we have fielded a professional team. Team GB's aim is to build a squad that might win medals at Rio or beyond. And on the way the British public gets an education in another sport.

Among the newly converted fans was Anita Walker, who travelled in with her family from Sittingbourne, Kent. A keen hockey fan, she managed to snap up tickets to both the hockey and handball during the first release.

“When they tickets came through we were like hockey, yay! Handball, hmmm,” she admits. “We've brought the children. They're not really sure what's going on. But it's fast and exciting, good end to end stuff.”

The crowd's new found enthusiasm for handball is helped by the fact that the Copperbox stadium where the games take place isn't particularly popular among corporate sponsors. There's a noticeable lack of VIP seating, which gives the stadium the kind of democratic edge that has been so lacking at other venues.

The game itself is frantic, fast and exhausting. Unless they dribble the ball with the hands, players can only take three steps before passing it on and the longest they can hold on to the ball when standing still is three seconds. The play is non-stop and goals are frequent. It's not unusual to see forty goals scored on a single one hour match. A goalie's lot in handball is not a happy one.

The ball, meanwhile, gets noticeably dirtier as the game goes on. To stop it slipping out their hands, players coat it in a sticky resin which rubs off on the floor, clothing and anything else it touches. Every now and then a purple shirted volunteer with a mop is sent on to clear up the mess.

For Britain's handballers, many of whom never even played the sport five years ago, the road has been difficult. They receive no professional pay and their government funding was cut midway through their training at an academy in Denmark. Many have had to take on extra jobs to see them through.

But where they lead, the rest of Britain is beginning to follow. The British Handballing Assocation claims that theirs is the fastest growing sport in Britain. By the end of 2008 10,000 children had been introduced to handball for the first time. That number has increased sixfold to 58,000 while the number of regular players has rocketed from 3,000 five years ago to 9,000.

“People like it because it’s a little different but it also helps that you can get to a fun standard relatively easily,” says Frazer Snowden from the BHA. “It's phenomenally popular pretty much anywhere outside the English speaking world. It's great to see it finally catch on here.”

Speaking to The Independent after the match, former basketball player turned handball letwing Mark Hawkins, described how the crowd's enthusiasm keeps their spirits up. “It's absolutely phenomenal,” he said “It's incredible that so many people love it all the way through. The novelty doesn't seem to be wearing off. We were watching some of the other teams earlier where there was no British interest and the crowd was still going crazy for every hit and every goal. It's phenomenal that the British public are taking to it in this way. It would be nice to be on the back pages for a win but we've just got to keep going.”