This article is about the sport of “Team” or “Olympic” Handball and not about the similarly named sport of American handball. Unqualified use of the term “handball” in this article is understood to mean the team variety as played indoors in Europe
Handball is one of the most popular team sports in much of Europe, particularly Germany, France, Spain, the Nordic countries and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Even regular league games often draw sellout crowds to the halls where it is played and the passion and dedication with which European handball connoisseurs follow their sport knows no equal.
Handball is known throughout continental Europe for its fast pace and high scores. Results like 24:22 are very common and a good goalkeeper is able to block about half the shots. In addition to good hand-eye-coordination, handball requires speed and strength as rapid “counterattacks” are crucial elements in a successful offense. While several varieties of handball have enjoyed popularity over the years Nordic dominance and its faster pace have made the indoor variety that can be played year round regardless of weather the dominant form of the game and the only one to be played professionally since at least the 1970s. The sport has many superficial similarities to soccer but also has elements of Basketball. Limiting turnovers is another crucial element in winning games as the success rate of well placed throws is rather high.
Handball is played by two teams of seven players each. The goal of the game is to throw the ball, which looks a lot like a miniature soccer ball, into the opposing goal. In front of either goal a semicircle is clearly marked as off limits to all but the goalkeeper. Stepping into this circle is punished by loss of ball possession for the offense or a free throw if done by the defense to gain a defensive advantage. Jumping into the circle is allowed for a player in possession as long as (s)he shoots or passes before hitting the ground and is a crucial element in modern handball. A game takes two halves of thirty minutes each with no extra time. Time is stopped at the discretion of the referees when a long intermission in play occurs or during a team timeout. When the time for a half has elapsed, play immediately stops. Besides the goalkeeper no player may touch the ball with his feet or legs at any time.
Fouls are penalized through free-throws or – in the case of more serious offenses – seven-meter throws as well as two minute penalties (i.e. the offending player is sent to the bench for two minutes and may not be replaced). Seven meter throws are similar to soccer penalties in that the goalkeeper is the only player allowed to defend the goal. They typically have a high success rate and are a crucial element of game play similar to free throws in basketball.
Substitutions may be made at any time and in any number but only on the midfield line.
Unlike in soccer where the only thing keeping a team from playing as defensively and passively as it pleases is the opposing team, there are rules against “passive play”. Unlike in Basketball this is not measured by a shot clock but rather the judgment of the referee who will raise his or her hand to warn of an impending penalty after which no more than six passes are allowed before an attempt to score has to be made. The referee will also enforce the penalty after a certain amount of time (usually five to ten seconds) has elapsed without a change to the passive play. The penalty for passive play is the loss of ball possession and a free throw for the opposing team.
To encourage more offensive play, a rule change was instituted in the 2010s that the goalkeeper can be pulled and replaced by an additional field player at any time during the game. However, this further increases the risk of rapid counterattacks, especially if the goalkeeper cannot get back onto the field in time.