When the national handball team of Germany, Serbia or Sweden prepares for a crucial World Cup qualifier, the buzz around the team is deafening, thousands of fans get excited and the media pumps up expectations. In Israel, before the crucial game against the Netherlands, there was nothing of the sort. Handball simply isn’t a leading sport.
Still, one would think the sport includes all the features needed for popularity in Israel: aggression, speed, action and goals. In effect, handball is a compact version of soccer.
“Actually, the resemblance to soccer might be the problem,” says Ilan Tamir, a sports media expert who lectures at Bar-Ilan University and Ariel University. “Soccer has gained its worldwide appeal since it is the most similar to the root culture of the carnival. Soccer reenacts the spontaneous culture and successfully portrays a hunt − you chase something, try to overtake it, and finally have the symbolic killing when a goal is scored.”
According to Tamir, soccer will continue to hog headlines at the expense of handball and other sports: “The popularity of different sports rises and falls as a result of success or budgets. Still, soccer remains the leading sport in Israel and that won’t change. It fits in perfectly with our militaristic culture, where 11 warriors fight as a military unit against the enemy. The fact that soccer continues to be so popular despite its limited international successes reflects this phenomenon. Its true that handball, too, presents a team effort with goals, but handball is fighting for control over a niche that is anything but vacant.”
Ronny Braun, formerly the leading handball presenter of the Sports Channel and currently director general of Hapoel Rishon Letzion soccer club, is aware of the ins and outs of both sports. “Israelis are glued to their habits, and its difficult to make them budge,” he says. “Handball, like so many other sports, simply isn’t part of these habits. It is in an inferior position and hardly manages to arouse public interest. It seems that Israelis would love the aggression of handball and it could catch on, but the many ills of Israeli sports culture prevent people from even trying to bring on change.”
Often it is the parents who determine the size of the ball their children will choose to play with, but that’s not the only issue the sport faces. “The problem with handball that made it less popular, especially in the last two decades, is that it can’t be played in the neighborhood,” says Yair Galili, a sports sociologist.
“When building new sports complexes or asphalt courts, the architects think of basketball and soccer. Handball needs a slightly larger court, and physical education teachers hardly teach the game at schools.”
Galili points at two other problems: handball necessitates more complex coordination than basketball and soccer, and its rules are somewhat blurry. “The handball referee is one of the most important figures in any handball game,” Galili says. “He has too much liberty in his decisions, and can decide when to eject or not to eject a player for two minutes. This causes antagonism among many young players. In the U.S. handball isn’t played at all. When a game isn’t played in the U.S., it means that it has a problem. Americans are the best at transforming sports from leisure to commodities. As far as they’re concerned, there are problems with the rules and the courts. Handball is very popular in Europe, which is the cradle of modern sports, especially in the north of the continent.”
In fact, handball is a leading sport in most European countries, and in some is the second most popular sport. In Germany, for example, there are thousands of fans even in third-tier league games. Basketball, with all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki, is considered a negligible sport.
In Israel, basketball is the second most important sport, trailing soccer, but much more popular than other sports, mostly thanks to the tradition of Maccabi Tel Aviv and its success in European tournaments. “Basketball’s standing is based on past success of the national team, and mostly the success of Maccabi, that attracted many kids to the courts. Still, its standing is relatively volatile compared to soccer,” says Galili.
Few Israeli athletes
In recent years handball has secured more support, and a “golden squad” has begun practicing regularly with a leading European coach, Dragan Djukic. Budgets have increased significantly with the aim of reaching next year’s World Cup finals − a hope that has since been crushed in the final game of the qualifiers, when Israel needed a draw against the Netherlands but lost. “Israel Handball Association leaders managed to market the game and even create an illusion,” Braun says. “They caused the impression among decision makers that with a steady strategy, Israeli handball can be internationally successful. I do hope I’m wrong, but I believe that assessment is not realistic.”
One wonders if the strategy of investing at the top of the pyramid − the national team − is the right way to go about nurturing young players and rehabilitating handball’s public standing. Tamir believes this strategy reflects the problematic standing of sports in Israel. “As an academic I believe in facts, and the numbers show that only one percent of the population engages in competitive sports. This is a staggeringly low percentage in comparison to European countries. The number of athletes is so small to begin with that we simply don’t have enough soldiers for a battle in any of the sports.
“We don’t have the basis for the creation of stars who can serve as role models,” says Tamir. “Elitzur Ramle won the [basketball] EuroCup, but not enough girls played the game at schools. Therefore it led to a 48-hour celebration but hardly affected women’s basketball in the long run.”
Galili, who as a kid watched the hotly contested derbies of Petah Tikva, says that the game is still limited to certain areas in Israel: the coastal plain, Petah Tikva and Haifa’s satellite towns, though recently it has been making inroads in the Sharon area as well. “In Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there is no tradition or history of handball rivalries,” he explains. “The media is looking for the spark, that something beyond the game itself. Apart from the Rishon Letzion derby we have no such games, and therefore media interest is low. The game doesn’t manufacture income, since there aren’t enough sponsors or fans. Furthermore, precious few girls play the game.”
Speaking before Israel’s loss in the final game of the qualifiers, Tamir believed that while success would not guarantee a change in the fortunes of handball in Israel, failure would make that change even more difficult. “One can only hope for a spectacular success, or the slow nurturing of young players from scratch. At this point in time, both scenarios seem far-fetched, but one does wonder which will come first.”