Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Sport

Huge crowds have descended on Germany for the European championships as the explosive sport continues to expand

The hall is still reverberating to the beat of almost 20,000 fans’ celebrations while Philipp Weber, taking stock in an adjacent corridor, tries to take everything in. “It’s unbelievable, just amazing,” says the Germany left-back, beaming. “Every game is like a dream.”

Weber has just helped send the crowd, tense at the outset but ultimately able to revel in a clinical second-half performance, bouncing into the Cologne night. The 2024 European men’s handball championship hosts are a step closer to the semi-finals after beating Hungary, who were imposing but ultimately inferior, with a convincing 35-28 victory.

They have fought off illness in the camp and no shortage of pressure: this is Germany’s second-favourite sport and expectations are sky high. The fever is not entirely incomparable with the madness that will descend when football’s equivalent showcase arrives in June.

Four days later, the arena is more subdued after Denmark, the tournament’s most technically gifted team, ease clear towards the end and send Germany tumbling out. Sunday’s final will be an all-Scandinavian affair, Sweden facing the Danes in a bid to retain their title, but it will crown a month when one of Europe’s treasured cultural assets has gained valuable ground.

“Comparing this competition to 1994, when we were just playing in a small hall, is tremendous,” says Martin Hausleitner, the European handball federation’s secretary general, of an event that began with a record 53,586 attendance when Germany beat Switzerland in Düsseldorf. “We’re living the best tournament ever. We’ve never had more spectators on site or on TV. The enthusiasm has spread and many people are talking about handball.”

A buzzing crowd cheer on Germany against Hungary. Photograph: Christopher Neundorf/EPA

The latter statement is not necessarily new in Germany, where the sport grew as an alternative to football early in the 20th century. Around a sold-out Lanxess Arena, fans wear replica shirts of handball Bundesliga sides or local grassroots clubs such as TSV Bonn and TV Witzhelden, demonstrating handball’s reach in a nation with more than 800,000 active players.

Nor is it a novelty elsewhere in Europe: Portugal, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and the Faroe Islands are among two dozen countries represented at Euro 2024 alongside giants in France, Spain, Germany and both of this year’s finalists.

Hausleitner is proud that nearly 5,000 Faroese, almost 10% of the archipelago’s population, travelled in support and watched a creditable draw with Norway. Other strong contingents have included 4,000 from Iceland, a number of whom were present to watch their side defeat Croatia in a palate cleanser before Germany overcame Hungary, and as many as 10,000 who crossed the border to Hamburg and watched Denmark’s group stage games.

“It has become an international event,” Hausleitner says. “People are coming from all around because they want to experience the Euros.”

One potentially gamechanging market is conspicuous by its absence. Handball has never taken hold in the United Kingdom and to most Britons this championship, contested to such crowds and cross-continental buzz, must feel as if it is occurring in a parallel universe. On collecting tournament accreditation, the Observer is greeted semi-jocularly with: “Well, this is a surprise. An Englishman has come to watch handball.” Stubbornly, and with no sole explanation, it has never stuck on this side of the English Channel.

“We would like to create greater visibility in the UK, it’s our next step there,” Hausleitner says. Great Britain men’s and women’s teams competed in the home Olympics of 2012 but were roundly trounced. Just under £3m of funding was subsequently cut by UK Sport and it has barely made a ripple domestically since then. There has been next to no impact on the younger generation.

Watching three intense, meaningful games in Cologne it is not hard to see handball’s appeal. “We are a very dynamic sport on a small field,” Hausleitner says. “So you have to get close to the action. We consider handball to be tough, hard, but also very fair and respectful. We transfer these values to everyone in our environment.”

Austria’s Tobias Wagner (left) in action against Iceland’s goalkeeper Viktor Gisli Hallgrimsson. Photograph: Christopher Neundorf/EPA

For the first 30 seconds of each tie, the team that begins in possession offer its opponents a feel of the ball by throwing it back and forth. Then the action takes hold: a seven-a-side game characterised by sharp changes of rhythm and emphatic, explosive finishing is low on downtime and requires regular rolling substitutions. In some ways it is a sport whose outcomes are defined when things do not go to plan: goalkeepers should not have a prayer when a six-footer is hurling a ball towards their net from a matter of yards, so their interventions are often celebrated wildly.

That is why France’s Samir Bellahcene whirls his arms in front of the crowd, staff and teammates on the bench going equally berserk, when his bravery and reflexes bring three successive saves in the evening’s middle match against  Austria. “Amazing!” enthuses the stadium announcer. There is hype and razzmatazz here: music pipes up during breaks in play, “Another one bites the dust” airing when an Austrian player receives a two-minute suspension, and audience participation is encouraged.

Handball’s proponents point out that it is a sport for all body types: if you are the hulking, 6ft 6in, barrel-chested Austria pivot Tobias Wagner then you are welcome to make a career; so, too, if you are among Germany’s flock of lighter, nimbler, more waiflike talents. At least three-quarters of the players on show have a professional background and in the Bundesliga they can earn £1m. The major countries have academy pathways and the task, now, is to use Euro 2024 as a springboard for more.

“We want to double our income by 2030,” Hausleitner says. “And we want to increase the number of fans, because we know 120 million Europeans are interested in handball but perhaps only three million regularly attend events. And the biggest goal is to grow more players, from the grassroots, and implement more clubs for children.”

Perhaps, one day, those may be springing up around Britain. For now, handball remains a secret that continental Europe hides in plain sight.

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