The Scandinavian handball thang

So we were left sad that the Icelandic men’s handball team couldn’t repeat or better their heroics of Beijing 2008.

But we were left happy that Sweden did their utmost (but not quite enough) at London 2012 to vanquish a French team hailed as the best ever in a seat-of-the-pants, nerve-wracker of a final – and that the Norwegian’s ladies team did indeed strike gold once more, with another thriller seeing them overcome a Montenegro team that, remarkably, hadn’t even sallied forth into international competition until two years ago.

Norway: women's Olympic handball champions once more

Norway: women’s Olympic handball champions once more

Four silvers for Sweden in the history of the men’s competition. The women’s Olympic title hasn’t been out of Scandinavia since 1992 – when the Internet was still a fledgling concept and the world still hadn’t quite adjusted to coming out of the Cold War. That was the year Sweden’s men lost out on gold to a ‘Unified Team’ that was essentially a USSR farewell tour outfit and Norway’s women fell to South Korea in the final, just as they had in Seoul four years before.

Clearly handball does play some piloting (or navigating) role within the sporting/cultural part of the Scandi psyche. But where does this stem from? There are two pretty obvious considerations: like football, it’s a relatively cheap sport; unlike eleven-a-side football, it lends itself to being played indoors (defying the long Northern winters at a stroke). Indeed, some sources cite Denmark as the birthplace of the modern indoor format; like England and football, it’s not hard to see why the Northern countries would feel protective about the game’s heritage.

Played indoors: so therefore coldproof

Played indoors: so therefore coldproof

It’s noteworthy that whilst women’s international football has flourished in the last twenty years and only recently (and belatedly) gained admission to the Olympics, women’s handball has been a staple feature of the Games since Montreal 1976 (perhaps it has been a  less gender-discriminatory sporting discipline over the decades in this respect).

We would certainly not wish to suggest that women’s handball, equal opportunities in sport and Scandinavia are exclusively fused and that no-one else gets a look-in; for starters, France and Russia have fielded formidable teams of their own in recent years and it also took some time for Scandi countries to really make their mark on the Olympics following an initial period of Eastern domination in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the progressive egalitarian instincts of Scandi countries do strike a chord with us and we therefore wonder if they have played a part in the thriving women’s game there. As is often the case, we intend to research this one further, but your feedback counts as part of our research at this moment. Many thanks.

In the meantime, it’s difficult not to be charmed by a succinct analysis in the overview section of this Swedish blog, to the effect that the sport combines happiness, speed, struggles and tactics with being immensely viewable on television. We couldn’t agree more; it combines the scoring logic of football with the compactness of basketball and does so in style. (Aesthetically pleasing, angular, understated, compact: dare we suggest that handball is classic Scandinavian design realised in sport format?)

Unlike the frequent end-to-end fury of basketball and the often het-up atmosphere of football and ice hockey, we would also add that it incorporates its own remarkable combination of light and shade, slow-building drama and startling denouement. One half of the intrinsic appeal of the televised Olympic coverage was watching gravity- and time-defying dives in the interests of scoring a goal, not in the interests of cynically trying to conjure up a penalty or free kick.

The other half arose from the fact that those dives stemmed from a very protracted, low-key, subtle bobbing of the ball between players not yet on the offensive and not yet lunging for goal. The defenders often appeared motionless as if they didn’t want to blink within the game of mental poker within the handball. This was graphic cat-and-mouse stuff when some 100mph soccer games just resemble cat-and-cat; whilst the high scores in handball games suggest a good deal of end-to-end action, the reality was that as much of it appeared to be side-to-side.

Two Scandi handball memories stay with us in the wake of London 2012. The bubbling joy of the Norway ladies’ team as they realised they’d survived the Montenegro onslaught; the otherwise-excellent BBC coverage didn’t pick up on the handball as much as it might have, but we were glad to see this moment complementing the effusiveness of Usain Bolt, David Rudisha and Bert Le Clos within more prominent pantheons.

Add to that the extraordinary goalkeeping of Mattias Andersson as he took Sweden past Hungary and into the final. Both Andersson and his Hungarian counterpart reminded us of grizzled longshoremen who might devour salt beef sandwiches in a couple of bites in between hard physical labour, but such a description would not on its own do justice to their skill. Andersson, bombarded by his team-mates at the end of that match, looked big like a bear. When it mattered, he also moved like a puma.

Mattias Andersson: cometh the hour, cometh the handball hero

Mattias Andersson: cometh the hour, cometh the handball hero

Following the near-misses of 2008 and 2012, we wait with intrigue to see if a Scandi men’s team can one day be golden lions.

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One thought on “The Scandinavian handball thang

  1. I’m so glad I got into this, although it was only because on Sky there were the BBC channels showing every match of every sport (there are now available on iplayer on the BBC Sport website). I also see that Eurosport 2 is going to be showing the EHF Champions League. I may have to start watching less F1! You make interesting points about the egalitarian nature of the sport and its indoor roots.

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