Do you know how Germany’s national football (soccer) team performed in the 2016 Euro Cup? Yes, probably. They lost the semifinal to France.
Do you know how Germany’s national handball team performed in the 2016 Olympic Games? Probably not. They equally lost the semifinal to France.
But in their 2016 European championship, the German handball team won – the final. You aren’t aware of this? Probably not – because remarkably few of us care about handball at all.
In Germany – but it’s the same in many other countries – (men’s) football (soccer) is the undisputed number one sport. The German Football Association (DFB) comprises close to 7 million members in more than 25,000 clubs. The national team’s victorious final in the 2014 World Cup attracted no less than 34 million TV viewers. But also the average match of the First Federal League (Bundesliga) is watched by as many as 40,000 fans in the stadiums, and hundreds of thousands in front of the screen.
In (men’s) handball, Leipzig’s SC DHfK club has belonged to the sport’s Bundesliga since 2015. It may have eluded your knowledge, however, that this club even existed. After all, the average handball match of the Bundesliga is followed by less than 5,000 stadium goers (fewer than the 7,000 in the Third Federal Football League!), and indefinably few TV viewers. Not even regional channels cover handball regularly. The German Handball Association (DHB) has about 750,000 members in about 4,500 clubs – a fraction of their football counterparts.
To be sure, when the German national handball team won the final of the European championship in 2016, an impressive 13 million spectators were watching. But the crucial question is: what was there before, and what remains after a triumph like that?
The general interest in handball was low, and continues to be so. Germany’s victory in the European championship was, just like in the world handball championship of 2007, an exception proving the rule. Handball obviously lacks the charm to capture long-term supporters.
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Foot vs. hand
Also outside Germany, there’s no country that would chose handball as their number one national passion. For those who attended the Olympic Games in Brazil, handball was the second most popular sport after football. In Germany, it may be the second most popular team sport overall – again after football.
Even as number two, handball is way behind football. So contrasting handball with football may best explain why the latter succeeds, and the former does not.
During this summer’s football Euro Cup, a journalist wrote that football is so intriguing because it’s unforeseeable: Already one goal may be enough to win, and this goal may, due to mere fortune, be scored by the team that is actually weaker. By contrast, in sports like handball, basketball or volleyball, you need dozens of goals or points to gradually wrestle the opponent down, which “levels fortuities out.” That’s an acute observation!
However, Germany’s handball team ended up this year’s European champion although it had been no favorite. And in the Rio Olympics, it lost the semifinal with one single goal short of France. Thus, handball also seems to be capable of surprising people.
So how does handball truly differ from football?
It all starts with the name: We call it “handball” because it’s played with the hand (within the framework of some restrictive rules, forbidding for instance “carrying” the ball), whereas “football” is “football” because the foot is involved. And here we are smack in the middle of the entire problem. What does it mean to use your hand or your foot?
With your hand, you have a lot of control over the ball; with your foot, very little. For on your hand you have fingers – limbs so deft and precise that they can play the piano, or assemble a tiny ship in a little bottle. On your feet, by contrast, you have toes – limbs that help you keep your balance and walk, but that otherwise only the handicapped without (functioning) hands, or some performers, train to handle and grip certain things large enough. A foot never reaches the motor skills of a hand.
As a result, whether athletes are allowed to touch a ball with their hand, or are banned from it, makes a dramatic difference. In the case of handball, that difference entails three features that, in my analysis, constrain handball’s attractiveness – that of watching, for sure, and perhaps also that of playing.
Less art with the ball
With their hands, handball players have so much control over the ball that treating the latter artistically, for example by dribbling or throwing it in an unusual manner, tends to be both unnecessary and counterproductive. Since your opponents play with their hands as well, an artistic trick of yours will make your ball control lower than your opponents’, and you may lose the ball.
Also in football, tricks lower ball control; but with their feet, your opponents don’t have much ball control either, so your risk may be worthwhile. In fact, football players with excellent technical skills often lead their teams to victory via just one individual situation (goal). In handball, by contrast, players can’t be much better than their team.
Into the bargain, when in handball they do use a trick, it looks far less delightful than one in football. This is due, again, to the levels of ball control: The lower the ball control of the permitted limb, the more demanding it is to do a trick – and the more pleasure it is to watch it.
This may, by the way, be a reason why handball doesn’t have “super players” as they exist in football: stars like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, at whose tricks we can marvel in scores of YouTube compilations. Compared to this, handball players resemble each other to the point of becoming one tedious uniform mass.
What’s especially bad is that scoring in handball involves as little artistry as other moves in the game. Here, ball control shares the blame with the limbs’ differences in strength. Legs are much stronger than arms – as you will notice when you try to “walk” on your hands. You may collapse after meters, whereas on your feet, you cover kilometers every day without even realizing.
Thus, with the strength of their legs and the artistry that a ball imposes on the actual “clumsiness” of their feet, football players score goals so impressive that the audience may elect them “goal of the month,” “goal of the year” – or even “of the century,” as in the case of a 1986 goal by Diego Maradona.
The world of handball may honor its most outstanding goals, too; but for the above-stated reasons, they look awfully dull when compared to football. And this is all the worse because handball allows more than ten times as many goals as football does.
More doesn’t necessarily mean better – the contrary is true here.
An inflation of goals
During the 2015/16 season of the respective Bundesliga, the average handball match saw 54 goals (27 per team); the average football match fewer than 3 (1.5 per team) – although in handball, a match (60 minutes) is one third shorter than in football (90 minutes). Thus, in handball, we drown in a regular flood of goals, with one almost every minute – and hardly a chance for suspense to build up.
In football, by contrast, one single goal is a definite highlight people can’t wait to see. Even a team’s preventing a goal from the opponent may be most spectacular.
For in football, the goalkeeper has a fair chance: In the 2015/16 Bundesliga season, the best fended off as many as 80 percent of scoring attempts against him. At the same time, a football goal is, with 18 square meters, so large that the goalies’ saves often are as exciting as the forwards’ goals.
A handball goal has a third of that dimension, 6 square meters, and still, the goalie before it bops around like a jumping jack. But what can he do? He’s a poor fellow indeed – the best goalkeeper of handball’s 2015/16 Bundesliga season fended off a mere 35 percent of the shots, despite the rule that in handball, you must, when possessing the ball, not touch the ground of a zone that starts six meters before the goal you target.
In football, such a rule would deprive us of lots of breathtaking scenes, whereas in handball, it’s unavoidable due to, once more, the hand’s precision. Against this, at closer than six meters, the goalie’s chance to repel the attack would drop down to zero.
Next to no midfield action
Having dealt with both the attack and defense in handball and in football, we finally must consider what takes place in between. In football it’s a lot; in handball next to nothing.
In football, especially with today’s high degree of tactical sophistication, much of the match, and often the very victory, is decided in the midfield. This is where the teams warily face one another, trying to force the opponent to make the first – and maybe fatal – mistake.
In handball, when a team retrieves the ball after its opponent’s successful or failed attempt to score, that team will usually carry the ball before the other side’s goal within seconds, since the court is quite short (40 meters as opposed to around 100, which is the length of a football field). More importantly, it’s due to you know what: It’s very hard to get ahold of a ball if it’s in the possession of a team using hands to dribble or pass it among its players.
In football, often the ball the goalkeeper kicks off high up into the air is immediately lost to the others, once it reaches the midfield. Players can’t even use their feet to play it, but have to use their head. The latter, in turn, controls the ball even less than the feet, which is why football’s rule to allow the header heightens again the attractiveness of the game.
By contrast, the reduction of the midfield in handball to something like a racetrack between the goals makes the game resemble a monotonous pendulum.
A few trees are not a forest
When you visit a handball match in the Arena Leipzig, you are no doubt surrounded by a stirring atmosphere. Whoever concludes from this, though, that handball is hugely attractive, would behave like a hiker who looks about within a circle of trees and concludes that he or she is standing in the midst of a forest. But from the outside, it’s still just a circle of trees; and from the outside of the handball arena, handball is totally covered by the shadow of football.
The reason is that there may be no other ball sport where the hand, with all its control, is as close to the ball as it is in handball. In other sports of the kind, such as tennis or hockey, the hand’s precision is lowered, and its strength heightened, by making the hand hold a racket or stick, with which the ball must be played. And in sports without any tools, such as volley or basketball, scoring requires the ball to be played in the air for at least a lot of the time, which diminishes ball control, too.
In football, the need to play the ball with the foot (or the head) imposes, whether they want it or not, some artistry on each player. In other words, it forces players to compensate with their skills for the lack of control of their foot (or head). This mixture is football’s secret, making it so attractive for viewers and players alike.
Also with different features, sports can be more successful, and more successful than football, if you think of the U.S. with its “American” football. Handball’s features, however, seem to have been badly crafted.
When it comes to entertainment at least, handball is, I’m afraid, a misconceived invention.