If you plan to follow the Olympics in some capacity this summer, be sure that handball is included in your agenda. The sport, which can be argued as a hybrid of basketball and soccer, is an action-packed, gripping event. You may lose track of the countless goals, but rest assured that with every pivot, jump and goal, you’ll be left wondering why you never sought to bring your elementary school handball skills to the next level.
Handball is something of a European phenomenon; 12 national teams for the men and women qualify for the Olympics, and this summer, 15 of the 24 teams are represented by a European nation. In the 11 Olympics that handball has graced, the Europeans have shared a medal with just two other countries: South Korea and China. The United States has failed to offer a formidable handball team for six straight Olympics.
In Rio, host-nation Brazil will represent both the men and women, and the women’s team is anticipated to shake things up after winning their first world title in 2013. They hope to join South Korea and China on the medal chart and also overthrow powerhouse Norway.
For the men, the French handballers are two-time reigning gold medalists; however, they face a talented Qatar squad, which fell to France 25–22 in the 2015 world championships. Qatar recently naturalized several top players for their national team, and the process drew criticism when Qatar reached the worlds final. Winning an Olympic medal would only continue to further criticize that process.
Here’s a handball refresher: Two teams of seven players—six outfield players and one goalkeeper—pass the ball by hand in an attempt to score by throwing the ball past the opposing goalkeeper into the net. A player is allowed to hold the ball for a maximum of three seconds, and can only take three steps without dribbling. If a player disobeys either rule, the opposing team gains possession. Field players cannot step into the goal area with the ball. However, they are allowed to jump into the area only if they release the ball before landing. This is often how players attempt to score.
The game is divided into two 30-minute halves, and two overtime periods of 10 minutes each are allotted as needed. If the score is still tied, the teams go into penalty shots to decide the game.
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Athletes to watch
Thierry Omeyer, France
Frenchman Thierry Omeyer is on his way to becoming the best goalkeeper ever. A member of the French national team since 1999, Omeyer has been a part of four world championships and three European championships, and has two Olympic gold medals to call his own. The International Handball Federation (IHF) has dubbed just four goalkeepers as World Player of the Year and Omeyer was added to that list in 2008. Most recently, Omeyer was named the International Handball Federation’s Most Valuable Player of the 2015 World Championship, which has been given just two other times to goalkeepers.
Domagoj Duvnjak, Croatia
Challenging Omeyer for gold in the upcoming Summer Games is Croatia’s center back, Domagoj Duvnjak. The 28-year-old has been with the Croatia national team since 2006. The national team has never taken home gold in any major handball tournament, so Duvnjak is certainly looking to add a gold medal to his repertoire. Watch for the center back with the strong hand; he often likes to attempt the arduous lay-up shot that requires speed, power and definitely some hops.
Mikkel Hansen, Denmark
A two-time recipient of the IHF World Player of the Year award, Mikkel Hansen has been a member of the Danish national team since 2007. Though the Danes have not proved as formidable as other national teams, the left back helped lead the team to gold in the 2012 European Championship. Hansen, 28, is also a three-time winner of the Danish Handball League (2007, ’11, ’12). Hansen is a threat on offense, as he was the top goal scorer in the 2011 world championships. With his long locks and iconic sweatband, Hansen uses his swiftness to find the back of the net.
Eduarda Idalina “Duda” Amorim, Brazil
Brazil is expected to give every national team a run for their money in Rio, and the player who can help Brazil achieve that expectation is Eduarda Idalina “Duda” Amorim. The left back has been with the national team for every major gold medal win since 2007. Despite Brazil not receiving a medal in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, Amorim has high hopes that she can help bring Brazil to the podium at the end of August. At 6-foot-1, Amorim uses her size and speed to maneuver defenders. In 2014, she was named IHF World Handball Player of the Year, the second Brazilian handball player to receive such an honor after teammate Alexandra de Nascimiento.
Heidi Loke, Norway
The Norwegian national team heads into the Summer Games with an intimidating squad, and pivot player Heidi Loke certainly gives Norway a chance to go for their third-straight Olympic gold. Loke has been a member of the national team since 2006. The 33-year-old is a pivot player in the truest sense; she dives and jumps so quickly that it’s often imperceptible when the ball leaves her hand and enters the goal. She was named IHF World Player of the Year in 2011.
Silvia Navarro, Spain
Silvia Navarro brings experience to this summer’s Olympic Games after having led Spain’s national team to a silver finish in the 2011 World Championship, as well as bronze in the 2012 London Games. In those Games, Navarro was fourth among ten top goalkeepers after she recorded a savings percentage of 37%. Though Navarro is just 5-foot-7, her flexibility and quick reflexes could prove hard to beat. Navarro, 37, was also the nominee of the Carpathian Trophy in 2013.
Each team plays every team in their group once. Two points are awarded for a victory, and one point is given for a tie. The leading four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals.
Group A: Argentina, Croatia, Denmark, France, Tunisia, Qatar
Group B: Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden
Group A: Angola, Brazil, Montenegro, Norway, Romania, Spain
Group B: Argentina, France, Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Sweden
Group-stage matchups to watch
France vs. Qatar, Aug. 9—France beat Qatar on its home stage at the 2015 World Championship in Qatar. Qatar will look to stop the established powerhouse from receiving its third-straight gold medal.
France vs. Croatia, Aug. 13—The Croatians were well on their way to receiving their own third-straight gold medal before France stopped them in 2008. Croatian Domagoj Duvnjak will have to get past brick-walled goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer, though.
Sweden vs. Germany, Aug. 11—Both countries are former dynamos on the handball stage. Germany’s upcoming star Uwe Gensheimer could be an even match for Sweden’s top-scorer Jonas Kallman.
Brazil vs. Norway, August 6—Perhaps the most anticipated handball match of the Olympics, a promising Brazilian force hopes to stop Norway from obtaining its third-straight gold medal.
Spain vs. Montenegro, August 6—Spain and Montenegro won bronze and silver respectively at the 2012 London Games. Spain’s top-scorer Marta Mangue could lead the team past Montenegro.
Netherlands versus Sweden, August 12—These are two newly notable squads. Competing on the Olympic stage for the first time, the Netherlands squad boasts several high scorers. However, the Swedes have an extra Olympics under their belt.
Men’s gold-medal match—Aug. 21
Women's gold-medal match—Aug. 20