Six months ago, if you had asked me what handball involved, I'd tell you it was two sweaty guys in a high-walled room smacking a small rubber ball against a wall. You know, like racquetball, except without the racket bit.

Apparently, that's yet another example of weird things Americans do: in the rest of the world, handball looks like a cross between basketball and soccer. It's soccer that you play with your hands, on an oversized basketball court, with tiny soccer goals, and ball-handling rules slightly reminiscent of basketball. Like lacrosse or jai alai, except without the basket things. Weird, huh?

For the specific, what I'll be describing is "team handball" or "field handball"; the racquetball-ish sport is appropriately called "American handball".

The Basics

Handball is played with two teams of seven players (six court players and a goalkeeper). Play is divided into two 30-minute halves.

The winner is the team with the most goals in sixty minutes. Goals are scored by (you guessed it) tossing the ball through the opponent's goal. In a professional game, scores are usually in the twenties or thirties for each team.

They play on a court slightly larger than that of basketball (20m wide, 40m long), with goals that look like mini soccer goals (3m wide, 2m tall, 1m deep). Six meters away from the goal is the "circle", where only the goalkeeper is allowed. (An offense player holding the ball may jump in as long as sie releases the ball before landing, and defensive players can jump in to block a goal attempt, as long as they jump right back out.)

Regulations men's games use a ball weighing 15 to 17 oz., 23 to 24 inches circumference; women's and juniors' games use a ball weighing 12 to 14 oz., 21 to 22" inches circumference. Field players can only touch the ball with their hands. The goalkeeper can touch the ball with any part of hir body. A player can hold the ball for three seconds or three steps, and then must either bounce the ball off the floor (called "tipping"), pass it to another player, or make a goal attempt. The ball is almost always handled with a single hand.

As distinct from many other sports, players cannot knock the ball out of the hands of their opponents.

Player Positions

Defense: the players are roughly situated along the outside of the circle. From left to right, the positions are: left-wing or outer-left, half-left, mid-left, mid-right, half-right, and right-wing or outer-right.

Offense: five players are roughly situated along the free-throw line, with one player (the circle-runner or center-player) between the defending players and the circle. From left to right, the five remaining positions are: left-wing or outer-left, half-left, mid-player, half-right, and right-wing or outer-right.


Punishments can be called against players by the two referees. Warnings (yellow card) are given for non-endangering rule violations, at a limit of one per player and three per team (exceeding the limit results in two-minute suspensions); two-minute suspensions are given for illegal substitution, repeated rule violations, or unsportsmanlike conduct, at a limit of three per player (exceeding the limit results in a disqualification); a disqualification (red card) takes a player out of the game, to be replaced after two minutes; exclusions are given for bodily assault, and result in the team playing less a player for the rest of the game.

Free throws can be granted to a team for a fault of the opponent team; the thrower must stay three meters away from the circle and the defending team must remain three meters away from the player taking the throw. A penalty shot is simply the thrower against the goalkeeper, but the thrower cannot take a step before throwing the ball and must stand at a point seven meters in front of the goal (one meter from the circle), and the goalkeeper must stay within four meters of the goal.


Handball's current incarnation is similar to the games urania (of ancient Greece), harpaston (of ancient Rome), and fangballspiel (of 12th-century Germany).

Handball as it is today is generally traced to the late 1800s: Nyborg, Denmark saw a game in 1897. It was played in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, but Germany is credited with developing it as physical education teachers recognized it as a sport separate from Raffball and Königsbergerball. The German secretary-general of the Association Internationale de Football, named Hirschmann, encouraged its growth in the early 1900s and an official field was drawn by Max Heiser in 1917. Karl Schelenz is recognized as the modern father of the sport for further refining the rules and bringing it to the rest of Europe in 1919. The Congress of the International Amateur Athletics Federation called for a committee to create international rules for handball in 1926.

The 1928 Olympic Summer Games saw the creation of the International Amateur Handball Federation. After gaining popularity in the Berlin Olympic Games, the first Field Handball World Championship was held in 1938 in Germany. The International Handball Federation was founded on July 11, 1946, and currently represents more than 800,000 teams worldwide.


Handball was first included as a men's sport in the 1936 Summer Olympics at the request of Hitler, but were not played again at the Olympics until 1972 (as a men's sport). A women's discipline was included in the 1976 Olympics. (America has never earned any medals in handball.)

The International Handball Federation organized a men's World Championships in 1938, and has done so every two to four years since World War II.

Assorted Other Reading


  • The International Handball Federation:
  • USA Team Handball: (links to various national teams available at their links page)
  • European Handball:

Wikipedia's always full of info, if you want more:

Another variation of handball exists in New Zealand.

Although probably not very popular, it exists as some sort of distant relative of the handball game described by interrobang above.

This game uses the same "mini" soccer goals, is played on a half basketball court, teams consists of about six players each side with two goalies and the ball may only be played with the hands. But that's about where the similarities end.

In this game the ball is a standard soccer ball/volleyball/netball - whatever you have handy.

The biggest difference, however, is that the ball is never supposed to leave the ground. You must "dribble" or pass the ball along the ground in the same way you would in a game of soccer. Definitely no throwing the ball. This encourages teamwork in the players by passing the ball around to get to the goal.

Suffice to say, because you are supposed to play on your feet (no crawling or sliding along on your knees), this can cause a bit of a sore back by the end of the game for taller people. Perhaps this is why it's not a very popular game.

There are a few other rules such as no moving backwards with the ball, no hitting the ball with a closed fist and no shoulder barging through other players.

On the whole this is an okay game, and fun for young kids/teens, buts it tends to feel awkward as you're always hunched over while playing the ball.

Hand"ball` (?), n.


A ball for throwing or using with the hand.


A game played with such a ball, as by players striking it to and fro between them with the hands, or alternately against a wall, until one side or the other fails to return the ball.


© Webster 1913.

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