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December 25, 2011

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Looking to score more enthusiastic fans

WHILE handball isn't a widely played sport in China, a small group of passionate players, both expat and Chinese, are trying to spread awareness of the game and have fun while doing it. Alex Linder takes to the court.

The sport of handball hasn't made much of an impact in China - its ancestral homeland is in Scandinavia and Northern Europe - but last Saturday morning found more than 100 enthusiastic handballers from all over the world at Shanghai Tongji University competing for love of the game.

Wolfram Seitz grew up in Germany where top-level handball games can draw crowds of 20,000. He started playing the game as a kid and went on to play in professional German handball leagues. While the competition is still important, Seitz admits that in China things aren't as serious.

"You have a lot of professional players here, which play on a very high level," he says. "But there are also beginners who are just learning the game, so really it's just for fun."

Seitz found his way onto Chinese handball courts through the group Handball in China. The club is loosely organized through a website and mailing list. It was founded more than three years ago in Beijing and since has built up a network reaching out to expats yearning to play the sport. The Shanghai club has around 30 members.

The tournament, which takes place roughly every six months, pitted two European expat teams, one from Shanghai and one from Beijing, against a Japanese expat team and five teams of Chinese players.

In the tournament, each nationality presented its own challenges on the court according to Seitz. The Chinese play very solid and try to win with sheer force, while the Japanese team is small, crafty and very fast.

For those unfamiliar with handball, it plays something like a cross between football and basketball, where players try to hurl a ball the size of a coconut, past the outstretched arms of defenders, into a goal. The game is fast-paced and physical, often ending with more than 20 points scored by each team and a couple players with a black-eye.

Before their match, the Beijing Expats kept things loose, cracking jokes with each other between stretches and game-planning.

The team's leader for the day was Bojan Horeacic, who was taking over coaching duties while the regular head coach was abroad. Horeacic grew up in Croatia where the sport is popular and the national team is excellent, winning the gold medal in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. Before coming to China to work on his PhD, he played for RK Zagreb, the best Croatian club, as well as the Croatian national team.

Coming from this demanding atmosphere, playing amateur handball in China is a welcome relief for Horeacic. "When you play handball for some club, you're under pressure all the time - you have to score," he laughed. "You don't have to do anything here - just have fun. That's what's it all about."

The easygoing and social vibe of the team is what American Meg Connelly likes most.

In Houston, Texas, where she's from, handball is a game in which two people take turns rifling a small rubber ball off of a 20-foot wall and trying to catch it. She was perplexed when some of her friends asked if she wanted to join the Beijing handball club. "Why would you want to do that?" she wondered.

She showed up to her first practice and was quickly overwhelmed by how different team handball was from her expectations. She spent the practice running lost up and down the court, unsure about what exactly was going on.

Since then, she's learned the rules and grown to enjoy the sport and especially the club itself.

"I like the environment, I like the people, I like the sense of camaraderie and community that comes with it," she explained. "It's a competitive sport and people are very serious about it, but it's also a lot of fun. After training, we'll go and have dinner and beers and just joke around with each other."

Giving a hand

According to Horeacic if you want to be a good handball player, "You got to be fast, you got to jump high and you gotta have a brain."

Seitz adds that you need very good coordination and endurance to become an ace at the sport. "A lot of people underestimate it, but it's a very tough game," he said.

Fouls are common in handball and even encouraged as good defense. This means that games can get quite physical.

You don't need to tell that to Polish handballer Gosia, who returned from her match sporting a few bruises and a bloody lip.

Gosia has been playing handball for 12 years, she even played on the Polish Women's National Handball Team (but she doesn't tell her friends on the team that, fearing raised expectations).

She's found the competition in Shanghai to be quite fierce featuring more rugged play and testosterone than she was used to.

"I hadn't been playing with guys before," she said. "It's much more tough and rough. There's pushing and it can get dangerous sometimes."

She said she looks past the occasional elbow to the jaw, because she likes how handball has shaped her daily life. "It can give you a lot of opportunity to learn team play at work and at home, and teaches you how to organize," she said.

In China

Handball is sometimes referred to as the second-most popular sport in the world. It might not even be in the top 20 in China, though. One Chinese team coach estimated that there are only 15 amateur teams across the country and players probably number only in the couple hundreds.

Those who do play usually discover it at the university level. One middle-aged player on the Shanghai Eagle of Dream handball team said, "I joined the handball team of my university and began to love this sport. I dropped the hobby for the first few busy years after graduation, but I missed the game from time to time. Now I have more leisure time and I can pick it up again."

Despite the sport's lack of popularity, China is trying to patch together a team that can be competitive in international competitions. Some Chinese players said that they even majored in handball when they were college students.

But it's a steep hill to climb. Chinese handball reached its peak when the women's team bagged a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics, but it has been all downhill since. The men's team didn't make it past the preliminary round in the 2008 Olympics.

Each of the Chinese teams has its own venue for practicing and team members usually gather to play on the weekends. "We try to find proper time to gather and play handball every week or month," said the Eagle of Dream coach.

"If someone likes the game, come and just join. We set no restrictions for admission to the team."

(Chen Ni contributed to the story.)


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