This is the second in a series of articles about the 2015 Pan Am games in Toronto. The first was here, and involved the Pan Am experience itself as well as beach volleyball. This article deals with handball, and the final one covers table tennis and soccer.
Unfortunately, I’m a sucky photographer so I only got one handball picture that was any good, and it isn’t all that good anyway.
July 23: Handball
I was not prepared for how cool handball was going to be. People in lacrosse frequently call it “the fastest game on two feet”, but I think the handball people could put up a good argument. With no exaggeration, the action is constant. There’s no faceoff after goals, so the goalie picks up the ball out of the net, throws it to a teammate halfway up the floor, and we have action again a second or two after the goal.
Handball is similar to other goal-oriented sports; the people on your team try to put the ball in the other team’s net, and vice versa. Obviously in this case, you can simply throw it rather than kick it, hit it with a stick, or throw it using a little net on the end of a stick. The ball is a little over half the size of a basketball, easily palmed. It’s even got some resin rubbed on it to make it a little more sticky. There are six players per side plus a goalie, and the goal is 2 metres (6’6″) tall and 3m (9’9″) wide. Around the goal (which is against the back of the court, so you can’t go behind it) is a huge orange “crease” area, in which nobody is allowed to step except the goalie. The defenders stand around the edge of the crease, and the attackers try to throw the ball over, between, or around them into the net, and there is almost constant passing in order to try to get someone open to do so. The attackers are allowed to jump into the crease, as long as they throw the ball before landing. This gives them quite an advantage (getting them closer so the goalie has less time to react), so it happens a lot; if you didn’t know the rules, you might think after watching a game that you must be in the air to score.
To force the constant passing, players are not allowed to hold the ball for more than 3 seconds or more than 3 steps unless they are dribbling. I really didn’t see a lot of dribbling; most of the time it was run-pass-run-pass-run-pass-pass-pass-pass-(lots of passes)-jump-shoot. The game kind of reminded me of a lacrosse power play, in which the attacking team doesn’t give up the ball and passes it around until someone has a decent chance. But there’s also no shot clock so there’s no limit to how long a team can possess the ball.
It’s a very high-scoring sport – each team generally scores between 20 and 35 goals per game. There was one game with a final of 39-38, and the two games we saw were 29-24 and 34-24. In a preliminary game, the eventual goal-medal-winning Brazilian team beat the eventual last-place Dominican team 48-18.
Like I said, almost every shot on net comes from a player in the air. This was very cool and it was surprising how long the players seemed to remain there while deciding where to throw and faking shots.
Nobody is padded in any way. There were no knee, shin, shoulder, kidney, or elbow pads, no helmets, and no gloves, even on the goalies. There were some penalties called (they referred to them as 2-minute “suspensions”), but not many. I’m not sure if grabbing an opponent’s jersey is legal or not since I saw it a number of times with no calls, but it could be a judgement call or the refs (there were two of them) just didn’t see it.
Having said all that about how handball is very fast and high-scoring with constant action, I’m not sure how well it would do as a pro team sport a la hockey or baseball. As much action as there was, it was always the same action. In hockey or lacrosse, you have different strategies for trying to get an open shot – circle behind the net, pass back to players further away to try and draw defenders away from the net, stuff like that. In handball, it seemed like a frenzy to get to the edge of the crease and the only offensive strategies were “pass it to someone else if you’re not open”, while the only defensive strategies were “stand in front of the attackers and make yourself as big as possible”. I’m sure that’s not entirely true and there are strategies that I did not see, just like non-hockey fans who think that the puck bounces around at random and occasionally goes into the net. We enjoyed the games we saw, but I could see the excitement level wearing off quickly the more games you watch.
Other game notes:
- We saw a couple of breakaways, and the goalies have almost no chance. They basically throw their arms and legs out as wide as they can and hope the ball hits them. This happened a couple of times, and it looks like a great save but in reality there’s just not enough time to see where the ball is going so it’s almost always pure luck.
- Wikipedia says Goalies can’t come back into their crease while holding the ball but I’m sure I saw them do that a few times.
- Not all the shots were straight into the net. A few times I saw them take lacrosse-style bounce shots. This was a clever play that was done infrequently enough to fool the goalie, who jumped to stop a high shot, only to watch the ball bounce underneath him. Similarly, there were “change-ups” too, where a player looked like he was going to fire a bullet but waited until the goalie jumped and as he was falling, lobbed a soft shot over him.
- As in many other international team sports, the clock counts up. This has never made any sense to me. When a player or spectator looks at the clock, he’s never thinking “How long have we been playing?” It’s always “How much time is left?” so why not make the clock count down and show him exactly what he wants to know? Why make the players or spectators do the math?
- The final score of the first game was 29-24 for Puerto Rico over Canada. One guy (Hector Hiraldo) scored 15 of Puerto Rico’s goals, while nobody else on the team scored more than 5.
- This was the only event in which I was a participant, although unwillingly and during the warmup. While the teams were warming up, I went down to the court to take a couple of pictures. I was standing just off the floor taking a picture of the Canadian team at the far end when suddenly WHAM! An errant ball came out of nowhere and hit me in the left knee. I didn’t see it coming, and it hit me just as I was taking a picture. It was really moving and it hurt for a few seconds but that was it. I imagine it hurts more when you take 40+ shots each game.
- Once again, there was nothing on our ticket indicating that we had paid to see two matches, but we did. The second game was a semi-final match between Brazil and Chile and Brazil won that one handily. Brazil ended up winning the gold medal, Chile the bronze. Canada finished 7th of 8 teams.
In the thrilling conclusion to our three-part series, we discuss Pan Am table tennis and the football (soccer) gold medal game.