Based in Vienna for 25 years, the European Handball Federation brings non-stop action
Did you know that Vienna is the headquarters of one of the most prestigious team sports in Europe? It’s a well-kept secret: The European Handball Federation (EHF) governs, organizes and promotes the Olympic sport from an innocuous building on Hoffingergasse in the 12th district. With six players (and one goalie) per side dribbling and passing Christmas pudding-sized balls that are thrown at the goal with speeds of up to 100 km per hour, the game is both fast-moving and high-scoring.
The Federation is celebrating its 25th anniversary on November 17 – a good excuse to take a closer look at a thrilling sport that still remains somewhat of a mystery to the English-speaking world. I met the EHF’s British-born ambassador, J.J. Rowland at their HQ: A 42-year-old bearded former international player, he made the bold claim that handball is “one of the biggest indoor team sports in Europe.” Rowland had the figures to back his claim up. The latest EHF-organized European championships, held in Poland, had a cumulative audience of 1.65 billion viewers, with 400,000 fans attending live matches over the course of the tournament. The biggest league is in Germany, but Scandinavian and Eastern European nations such as Poland and Hungary have traditionally been strong in both the men’s and women’s games. Several famous sports clubs, like Paris St. Germain and Barcelona in France and Spain also field successful handball teams alongside their footballing giants.
Back in 1991 when the Federation was formed, Vienna beat out competition from rivals Zürich and Berlin to host the EHF, with its central European location proving a handy advantage. “With handball being really popular in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as well as Germany and Northern and Western Europe, Vienna is a perfect spot to hold meetings and host competition draws,” explained Rowland.
Handball first captured my imagination in 2010, when the biannual European championships were held here in Austria. At a packed Intersport Arena in Linz, the home team pulled off a sporting comeback that has only been matched in Hollywood – by Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf. The Austrian men’s team, making their European Championship debut, was three goals behind Iceland with less than a minute on the clock. But an intoxicating passage of play, involving an athletic save from the sprawling Austrian goalkeeper, two lightning-quick fast breaks and a long-range lob shot at Iceland’s goal tied the score at 37-37 with just a single second remaining.
As the Austrian team hugged ecstatically, the Icelandic coach stormed off in disgust. I sat breathless, intoxicated by the speed and dynamism of what I’d just seen. “You can describe it as water polo without the water,” said Rowland. “As opposed to football, where you sometimes see no goals, each team usually scores at least 25 times, so it is exciting, end-to-end action.”
Along with parallels to water polo, handball also shares similarities to basketball: They both feature quick scoring, minimal physical contact and maximal agility, with the ball being moved down court via snappy passing and short dribbles. “You have to be an all-around athlete,” said Rowland. “You have to be quick and very physically fit. A lot of players are tall and you have to be able to jump well. But it also requires a lot of intelligence because passing requires a great deal of strategy and clever combinations between the players.”
J.J. Rowland grew up with handball – his father Jeff founded the British Handball Association and was one of its chief early promoters in the U.K. Rowland has travelled all over the world as a player and now does so as an administrator: “It’s an addiction and a passion. Once you have this excitement for the game, it stays with you.”
Indeed: Although retired from elite competition, Rowland was nursing a sore shoulder from a game with the Fivers, one of the most prominent clubs in Austria, based on Ziegelofengasse in the 5th district. “Once you get the ball in your hands,” he laughed, “you forget your body doesn’t want you to throw it as fast as you used to!”
Let the games begin
If you want to get involved – it is an excellent workout – clubs such as the Fivers welcome grassroots participation, with a broad range of youth and lower-level teams alongside their elite squad. It can even be a springboard to international stardom: Former Fiver Nikola Bilyk now plays in Germany for THW Kiel, a three-time winner of the sport’s international Champions League and one of the best clubs in the world.
During the history of the EHF, the sport has grown far more professional, believes Rowland. “When you look back at the photos from 25 years ago, you can see the huge progress. Now the sport is better marketed and much more popular on TV. Salaries for players have increased a great amount, as have contracts for coverage.” As for the future, Rowland is confident: “Handball is one of the biggest indoor team sports in Europe, we will continue to work hard to maintain this position.”