The Copper Box arena was heaving, the press conference descended into something of a scrum after Brazil and Croatia had contested a 24-23 humdinger and by last night there was even a bit of a controversy brewing over the Brazilian women’s tight, flowery shorts. “Pyjamas,” one journalist scoffed.
All of this might have been comprehensible to a British audience if the sport in question registered in the smallest way on the national sporting psyche. But it is does not. Handball, which gets a reference in Homer's Odyssey and, apparently, some recognition in a third century bronze statuette found in Greek ruins at Dodoni, is an obsession in northern Europe, growing rapidly in Brazil and Korea, but so obscure that Britain has had to build a team from scratch in five years
The rules essentially allow a small, leather ball of 60cm circumference to be propelled across a court by any part of a player’s body which is above the knee, to be held for a maximum of three seconds, and for a maximum of three steps to be taken while holding it. Naturally, it’s not quite as simple and benign as that, as the women of Denmark, who invented the sport, proved in their ecstatic response yesterday afternoon to a 21-18 win over fierce rivals Sweden. Large parts of northern Europe viewed that game as must-see event.
The Croatian coach, whose side play Britain in a week or so, was not concerned enough by such a prospect, to be able to name a single member of that squad, when challenged to do so by the Independent on Sunday yesterday, though his Brazil counterpart Morten Subak was acutely aware that Kelsi Fairbrother has just signed for one of the leading Danish sides, Viborg. “That’s absolutely one of the top sides,” Subak said. “Britain do have great potential for handball. For the good of the sport, we need to get handball stronger in the English-speaking countries of the world.”
Fairbrother is not the only link to the game’s inventors in the British side, whose tournament began yesterday evening against Montenegro, another newcomer to Olympic competition. The coach, Jesper Holmris, is a Dane and when he took on this role in 2008 his strategy was to find any British or half-British women in other countries, who had any background with playing handball. One of those is Britt Goodwin, who had the professional football career of her father, Steve Goodwin, to thank for her place in last night's British team. Goodwin snr’s largely journeyman’s career – the one claim to fame was scoring twice against Sheffield United to help Norwich City to the 1975 League Cup final – saw him wind up at Gjovik, in Norway, where they also know their handball - enough to be reigning world champions, in fact. His daughter applied for a place on the Norwegian version of Big Brother, looking for “a bit of fun,” as she puts it, but ended up winning £100,000, which she has used to train full-time.
The journey from nothing to Olympians in the space of five years also involved launching a talent contest for which there were 5,000 applicants. There were some drop-outs when the chosen men and women were told that they were being hauled to centralised training base at a Danish sports college, Arhus Hojskole. The men’s team’s star, Bobby White, tells of how funding was so short that the players worked as painter/decorators and gardeners there, refurbishing buildings in return for food and board. “It wasn’t fun in the winter,” he says. White later signed for another of the best clubs in Denmark - Bjerringro-Silkeborg-Voel.
Holmris isn’t expecting much: nothing more than a quarter final, he says. But after her superb performance in Brazil’s win yesterday, which included some Bruce Grobbelaar antics during penalty shots, goalkeeper Chana Masson said that other countries can challenge the Scandinavian stranglehold. “Yes we were quite surprised when we saw the drawings of our new kit,” she said. “But we’d changed it because we had got ourselves a sponsor who wanted something different. It’s not so long ago our team was travelling around by old bus and eating very basic food. We’ve fought for what we’ve got. We won’t complain.”