Handball in 5 lessons : Lesson n°1, the origins


21 December 2016

Until the beginning of the 2017 World Championship, we offer you to revise your handball lessons. This first lesson is dedicated to the history of handball, with the testimony of Daniel Costantini, former French team head coach (1985-2001).

Two teams fighting for the ball, with the aim to throw it at a target using the hand : in its conception, handball is an universal game. It is therefore logical to find some of its distant ancestors in the Graeco-Roman period, or in the German Middle Ages. But modern handball’s direct origins are more recent.

Late 19th century, « Hazene » et « Handbold »

« Generally, historians agree that handball comes from three different origins, sets Daniel Costantini, former French national team head coach (1985-2001). Two of these origins are dating back from the late 19th century. One comes from ex-Czechoslovakia, it’s a team sport called « Hazene ». Two teams are facing in a delimited space, passing the ball with the hand. And the goal is to try to reach a teammate placed inside a circle at a specific spot. This origin has to be taken into account, because today, the word « Hazene » still appears in the name of the Czech handball federation. »

Handball’s second direct origin comes from Scandinavia. « Around the same time, an educator named Holger Nielsen is known to have invented a sport called « Handbold », which was played with the hands, indoor, and where you had to score goals. This sport was meant to be played only by women, as men had outside activites », explains Daniel Costantini. The rules and form of « handbold », which was a game of seven against seven, clearly makes it a direct relative of handball, which actually appeared in the 20th century.

Eleven-a-side handball takes over in the interwar years

« Modern handball’s third origin is far close from us, it can be dated from the 1920-1925 era, in Germany, recounts the man who led the French team to its two first World Championship titles, in 1995 and 2001. At the School of Physical Education in Berlin, Carl Schelenz, who was a teacher specialized in track and field, invented a sport, in order to avoid that his students weaken during winter time. It was called « field handball », and this sport was played on a football pitch, but with a small ball and with the hands. This sport will then be known as « eleven-a-side handball », the zone was placed 14 meters away from the goal, and the penalty spot was at 15 meters. »

It should be noted that handball was originally created to permit a fitness routine as complete as possible. « Running, jumping, throwing, the three track and field specialties can be found in handball, more than in other team sports, underlines Daniel Costantini. The original idea was to stay in shape and to have fun at the same time, as handball has got this entertaining aspect that is sometimes lacking to track and field. » An entertaining aspect which helped eleven-a-side handball’s rise. In 1936, handball with eleven players is an Olympic sport in Berlin. Meanwhile, seven-a-side handball is also growing. In 1938, the first handball World Championship in Germany is divided into two competitions : one outdoor with eleven players, and  one indoor with seven players.

After World War II, handball settles indoor

After the end of World War II, handball finds its indoor sport identity, under the auspices of Intenational Federation (IHF), which was founded in 1946. « Handball players came to the conclusion that playing outdoor was complicated, relates Daniel Costantini. For instance, when the weather was rainy, the ball weighed 400 grams at the beginning of the game, and one and a half kilogram at the end… Hence, the idea of moving this sport indoor grew in minds. This transformation was achieved gradually, in the late 1940s and in the early 1950s. »

As seven-a-side handball was definitively settling indoor, eleven-a-side handball slowly faded away. « Handball with eleven players ran out little by little at this time, as it was overtaken in terms of attraction by handball with seven players », sums up Daniel Costantini. The latter could then begin to write its own myth. With its second edition in 1954 in Sweden, World Championship became the touchstone competition. Seven-a-side handball then definitely won it spurs, being recognized as an Olympic Sport in 1972 in Munich for the men and in 1976 in Montreal for the women.

Picture : IHF