Handball in 5 lessons : Lesson n°3, stars of handball

Ivano Balic

2 January 2017


Until the beginning of the 2017 World Championship, we offer you to revise your handball lessons. This third lesson is dedicated to the mot emblematic players in the history of handball.

Handball is, more than some other team sports, a game that puts the emphasis on selflessness and team spirit, so it is not really well suited for the notion of star. However, some special players have left a huge lasting impression throughout the history of handball.

Kempa, the pioneer

Chronologically speaking, the first ever handball star was undoubtedly the German Bernhard Kempa, at a time when handball was still played indoor and outdoor. Kempa played both eleven-a-side and seven-a-side handball and did a lot for the popularity of the two sports. Best player of the second seven-a-side handball World Championship in 1954, the German was an impressive and spectacular attacking player, who gave his name, in his home country, to the in-flight shot, which was one of his specialities.

1960s and 1970s, the Romanian golden age

But Bernhard Kempa was an exception in the Post World War II handball, which was still under construction. At the time, handball was mostly growing in Eastern Europe, where the ideology didn’t exactly promote to put forward one particular player among the team. But some players of the 1960s and 1970s still made it into the pantheon of handball players. This era was the Romanian golden age, as the Romania team won four of the five World Championships played between 1961 and 1974. The elusive winger Cornel Otelea seized the occasion to become the first player to win three World Championships (1961, 1964 and 1970). The other Romanian star of the time was the powerful back court player Stefan Birtalan, who was the best goalscorer of the 1974 World Championship and was then regarded as the best player in the world.

1980s, rise of the superstars

As handball turns professionnal for good, the 1980s mark the rise of star players within the best teams, which are not the same than before. Winner of the Olympics in 1984 and World Champion in 1986, Yugoslavia thus became a top team in the wake of their superstar Veselin Vujovic. In 1988, the brilliant Montenegrin left back opened a new era for handball, first with his big transfer to Barcelona, and then by becoming the first player to win the IHF World Player of the Year award. But this same year, the Olympic Games were won by USSR, thanks mainly to the performance of one star player : the goalkeeper Andreï Lavrov. Extremely talented, very reliable in the key moments, winner of many titles with his national team, Lavrov will also stay in the history of handball for his incredible longevity. During his 27-year long career, the goalkeeper took part in five different Olympic Games, which is the all-time high in men’s handball.

1990s, handball becomes increasingly international

At the end of the 20th century, the traditional handball borders are shattering. The stars of the decade highlight this trend pretty well. The South-Korean Yoon Kyung-Shin thus became the first man to finish three times top scorer of the World Championship (1993, 1995, 1997), as the gifted Talant Dujshebaev, who was born in Kyrgyzstan, played for Russia, and then for Spain, and was twice chosen as IHF World Player of the Year (in 1994 and 1996). As for the French team, who was the emerging force of the 1990s, it was led by the charismatic centre back Jackson Richardson (IHF World Player of the Year in 1995), who was born on the Reunion island, in the Indian Ocean. The top team of the decade nevertheless was Sweden, World Champion in 1990 and 1999. Led by their star back court duo, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lovgren, the Swedish team showed the path to modern handball, which is firmly athletic.

2000s and 2010s, reign of the Experts

World champion in 2003 and Olympic champion in 2004 with Croatia, chosen twice as IHF World Player of the Year (in 2003 and 2006) and even as the best handball player of all time by the users of the IHF website in 2010, extraordinary playmaker Ivano Balic is indisputably the star of the early 21st century. But at the end of his career, Balic suffered some staggering loss against the invincible “Experts” of the French team. Since 2006, this golden generation left nothing but crumbs for the other nations, winning eight trophies in ten years. There are obviously many stars among the “Experts”, but the brightest ones certainly are Thierry Omeyer, who was chosen as the best goalkeeper of all time by the user of the IHF website in 2010, and Nikola Karabatic, who was IHF World Player of the Year in 2007 and 2014. Still active, these two players will aim for a new trophy at the 2017 World Championship in France, just like the Danish Mikkel Hansen, who is the best player of the earlys 2010s and who won the last Olympics in Rio with Denmark.