Yesterday evening the French won their second consecutive Men’s Handball World Championship title. They’ve been pretty much unbeatable since picking up gold in Beijing 2008. Handball is played globally but is particular popular in Northern and Continental Europe. It’s widely accepted to be Danish in origin, although records of handball-like games have been found in medieval France.

I have never seen a live match, although I have seen a number of games on the television, and it’s relatively easy to get to grips with the rules. (In fact, the rules are not too dissimilar to water polo, for which I gained accreditation as a referee many moons ago when my beloved played the game.) Playing on a 40m x 20m indoor court, two teams with seven players apiece (six outfield players and a goalkeeper) pass around a hand-sized ball with the aim of throwing it into the goal of the other team. The team with the most goals after two periods of 30 minutes wins.

Games tend to be high scoring and fast paced  with plenty of body contact as defenders try to prevent the opposition’s attackers from approaching the goal. Contact is only permitted when the defender is between the offender and the goal: a player sandwich. Any contact from the side or especially from behind is considered dangerous and is usually met with penalties. When a defender successfully stops an attacking player, the play is stopped and restarted by the attacking team from the spot of the infraction or on the nine meter line. Handball players are allowed an unlimited number of “faults,” which are considered good defensive play and disruptive to the attacking team’s rhythm.

Field players are allowed to touch the ball with any part of their bodies above the knee (knee included). As in several other team sports, a distinction is made between catching and dribbling. The following restrictions apply:

  • On receipt of the ball, players can only retain it for a period of three seconds before passing, dribbling or shooting.
  • When holding the ball, players can take up to three steps without dribbling. If players dribble, they may take an additional three steps.
  • Players that stop dribbling have three seconds to pass or shoot. They may take only three additional steps during this time.
  • A player may dribble as many times as he wants (though since passing is faster it is the preferred method of attack) as long as during each dribble his hand contacts only the top of the ball. Basketball style carrying of the ball is prohibited.
  • Only the goalkeeper can move freely within the goal perimeter (6 meters) and touch the ball with all parts of his body. He may not gross the perimeter while carrying or dribbling. If he deflects the ball over the outer goal line, his team stays in possession of the ball.

Two blue-shirted referees of equal standing, assisted by a timekeeper and a scorekeeper, control the game, using a variety of hand signals, whistles and those all-important red and yellow cards. Their rulings are final and can only be appealed against if not in compliance with the rules. Referees can, at their discretion, call for timeouts. Each team, so long as it’s in possession of the ball, may call for one timeout, of one minute, per period.

While there are 7 players per team on the court, there are a further 7 substitutes on the bench. Substitutions can take place at any time and any number of times during the game without pre-advising the referees.

If a match ends in a draw after regular time, 2 x 5 minute periods of extra are played. Thereafter, the game will be concluded by a penalty shootout. Such was the case yesterday evening, in the match between France and Denmark, with the French winning 35-37 in extra time.

France’s Nikola Karabatic, who plays for Montpelier, was unanimously deemed the most valuable player (MVP) of the Championships. I know you’re probably thinking “hmm not a very French name”. His Croatian father, also a handball player, and Serbian mother moved to France when Nikola was very young.

France’s week end roll call of honours doesn’t stop there. Pechalat and Bourzat picked up gold in the ice dance at the European Championships while they also collected gold (Florent Amodio) and silver (Brian Joubert) in the men’s ice dance.