I woke up to a SLAM! Then another slam! SLAM! SLAM! “What is going on?” I asked my roommate. “O you must not have seen them last night. There is a Swedish girls handball team staying in our hostel this weekend.”
By the time I got out of bed and went downstairs for breakfast the team was already gone. The slamming of doors must have been the frantic rush to leave for their early morning game.
I had heard of handball before. I think I even caught a bit of it on the olympics last summer. All I knew was that it was a hybrid of basketball and soccer and that the American team was never any good. So why even watch?
Forgetting about handball, that afternoon my friends and I walked to an open American football field. It is strange because it is clearly for American football not soccer (in Prague at that) and it is one of the only public open green spaces big enough and nice enough to play pick up sports on. On the way there walking down the hill from the hostel we passed by an inflatable dome structure used to play soccer indoors in the winter. We heard a crowd erupt and a whistle blow. One of our friends Taliessen said he thought that there might a handball court inside and what we heard was one of the handball tournament games going on that weekend.
I didn’t know it was that big of a handball tournament. I thought the girls in our hostel were just an anomaly. But Taliessen talked to their coach the night before and apparently this is the largest yearly handball tournament in Europe. Taliessen is a big handball fan. He has told me before its his favorite sport to play. I didn’t really get why. It seemed just like a weird version of basketball. “No dude it’s sick trust me.” So we went in.
He wanted us to just take a peek inside to see if it really was a handball court. From the outside we could see it was too small for soccer and too big for basketball. So we snuck into the court (we saw signs saying players and families only) and then Czech words on a different sign. We couldn’t tell if it said to pay for entrance or for soft drinks and snacks. I didn’t feel like paying to watch 14 year olds play a sport I didn’t understand.
We finally found a way to the inflatable dome and one by one we each pushed through the revolving doors (revolving doors are necessary because the only thing keeping the dome pushed up against gravity is the higher air pressure inside). Inside the windowless dome an odd ambient light illuminated the field/court? The tough white canvas skin of the dome glows lighting up the inside of the playing field.
We watched a 15 year old German girls team play. We only caught the last few minutes of that game but it was so entertaining to watch I was hooked enough to stay for the next game. Handball uses a tiny soccer ball about a size three or what seven year olds and younger play with. You only move the ball by passing with your hands so most people can palm the ball one handed. And you shoot on a goal that is very similar in size to a field hockey goal. You pass the ball with your hands and you only get two steps after you receive it (or you have to dribble). There is also a basketball like three point arc that only the goalie can be in so the shots come from farther away.
Looking back on that weekend it seems weird. Imagine you’re in college and you and friends were exploring your foreign city on a study abroad trip. Would you give up one of your few free Saturdays to sit and watch a teenage team in a tournament for a sport you don’t even understand?
Usually I wouldn’t but handball is really an exciting sport. It is fast, physical and can be very fluid and beautiful to watch. Also I factor in the novelty of it. We didn’t know the rules and the only one who had played organized handball was Taliessen. And that was only at summer camp but he liked it so much that he understood the rules enough and he could explain it to us. What I didn’t know is that we would find something to root for when we stayed to watch that next full game.
The next game was a team of 13/14 year olds boys. Germans vs. Swedes. The Germans were tall, coordinated, and organized. Puberty had been kind to them. Their Swedish opponents were tragically awkward. Some players would run like new born foals, all knees and elbows. Their captain was a really remarkably small kid complete with high shorts and his shirt tucked in way too tight and of course he was wearing rec specs. We speculated he was the coaches son. We found out later we were right and he was as wholesome and hardworking as we surmised. Unfortunately, the awkward Swedes even had a girl on their team. Not that that’s a bad thing but there was a separate girls division. So it’s just embarrassing for the few 13 year old boys sitting on the bench at the start of the game knowing that the only girl on the team is better enough than him to be a starter.
We immediately made the connection that they were like the “Average Joe’s” team from the movie Dodgeball. Either way they needed our support. By about halftime we understood the rules enough having listened to Taliessen’s play by play that we could tell when a play was good or not. And more importantly if someone was unjustly fouled or a player was cheating…Let the vocal support begin. The Joe’s were getting beat. But not so bad. They played fundamentally well and were tougher than the Germans expected. Also that one girl earned her starting position. She had a cannon. She might have had the strongest arm on the team, but she was pretty inaccurate. This was turning out exactly like the Dodgeball movie. We finished watching that game and then went to go throw the frisbee on the American football field before the sun went down.
The next day (Saturday) my roommate Kyle found out where our Average Joe’s team was playing. We gave them so much support (and booing of the other team) at the next game that the teams on the side waiting around us even started cheering for the Joe’s. In this game, the Joe’s were playing a huge Croatian team (bigger than the Germans). At the start of the game you could tell the Croats were cocky and laughing about how easy this would be for them. Wrong. The Joe’s stole the pass on the first possession moved the ball up the court and scored. Fundamentals baby. The Croats were stunned. They were going to have to work for this W.
After the game (even though the Joe’s lost) they came over and clapped for us. The parents were so excited they weren’t the only ones who cheered on their kids. The team Mom was overjoyed that we returned from the day before to follow their team. My roommate exchanged e-mails with the manager and that night we heard that they even took a picture of us cheering for their kids and wrote about us in the team blog.
The next day, Sunday, was the finals. The Joe’s didn’t make it. But at least they won a game or two. Unfortunately we didn’t see those but still those kids had heart. The day of the finals, if you saw us you probably would’ve thought that we were little fanboys at the World Series or something. There had to be thousands of people here. It was an arena way on the edge of town and one we had not gone to yet.
Kyle: “O look there’s that really good german team!”
Tyler: “Look at those jerseys and all those kinds of handballs!”
Me: “Guys they serve beer here!”
There were mascots running around. Guys getting ready for halftime performances. Beer and handball finals? This was going to be a good day. My roommate’s sister was visiting that weekend too and she didn’t even mind we didn’t do all the touristy stuff. We found a better well kept secret.
We walked up the stairs toward the organized clapping and the Rihanna music playing and we were floored. We stood at the top level looking down on this palace of handball. The stadium easily fit more than five thousand people. And it was at capacity. Imagine yourself in middle school playing in front of that many people-it was awesome.
You could tell where each team was by their different colored warm ups in a blob of 20 or so splattered around the arena. And usually countries although maybe rivals united in the stands to cheer on their fellow countrymen. It really was packed. People were standing on the top row because there weren’t any seats. We strategically waited for one team to leave for warm ups so we could get a seat. As the day progressed, the teams just got better and better.
We were floored by their talent. Under 16 girls A division finals was Denmark v. Germany. Under 16 boys division A finals was England vs. Croatia. They were physical. I mean its like basketball but you are allowed to tackle your opponent. Sometimes. We never figured out how hard you were allowed to hit. Then it got serious. Under 17 girls division A finals. Swedes vs. Czechs. The home crowd went wild for them. They had drums and trumpets and way more support. At half time there was a pro BMX biker doing tricks on the court to entertain the crowd. In the second half, the swedes pulled away and won. The Czech girls seemed not to mind. They were still excited to have gotten that far. They were not sad at all after they lost in the finals. They started their own cheer and clapped for all of us in the home crowd rooting for them.
Then came the grandaddy of them all.
Denmark vs. France.
What I learned from the final: The French team was really cocky. They were also dirty but in return would act like they were fouled every play. I didn’t like the way the Danes played either, very pre-madonna like. It was not a very fluid game. The French were up the entire game. But in the last 5 minutes something amazing happened. It got real chippy and although the Danes were down by four, the French helped them out. Three players went to the penalty box. Two French and one Dane. The floor, now less crowded, immediately opened up. Play flew by and after some quick goals the Danes were now just down by one. Two players re-entered. The French were still a man down but a point up. In the last 50 seconds the Danes tied it. What an amazing comeback! The noise level of the stadium was at a constant roar. Everyone in the arena was yelling together united against the French (there was only one girls team left on the far side cheering for their French comrades). 12 seconds left. Is there an overtime, a shootout? How does this work? Danes steal it. 9 seconds left. They move into scoring position right in front of us on our side of the court. 6 seconds. The set play. The motion. The Danish captain gets it. 3 seconds. He shoots. Bounces off the court under the goalies leg and up into the back of the net. Mayhem. The French race to get the ball. But time expires. French players are all in the ref’s face yelling for a foul not called. Too late guys. You can already see the Danes know soon they’ll be holding the trophy.
Exhausted, hoarse, with a headache from the noise and a buzz from the beer, we walked home happy. Thank goodness the French lost. On the way out we bought tournament souvenir t-shirts because we are going to want to remember this weekend. We still hadn’t played a game of handball yet, but the day before one handball accidentally walked home with us after we watched the Joe’s and we were now itching to play. We also started noticing courts all around the city. Anywhere where there was outdoor basketball hoop underneath it was a handball net. Once it warms up, we are definitely going to play outside.