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For the win: how GB handballers made last-gasp history

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Ollie Williams | 08:18 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

If you spent your weekend bemoaning an England goalkeeper throwing a game away, then I'm sorry: you were watching the wrong sport.

Forget Robert Green, you need to meet Robert White. His heroics between the sticks for the British men's handball team on Saturday helped the team to a result which means as much as the World Cup does to English football.

With the score between Britain and Bulgaria tied at 32-32, a save from White prompted a GB move in which Steven Larsson scored the winner with mere seconds on the clock. Pandemonium ensued. It was the first time this British team has ever won a competitive international.

Read that again. Their first competitive win ever. It's hard to convey the atmosphere as Larsson found the back of the net. The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre can only accommodate a few hundred fans, but they took the roof off.

Anyone who ever played in a rubbish sports team as a youngster will know the feeling of finally managing to win a game. Transfer that to the world stage, in arguably Britain's least successful Olympic sport, two years before a home Olympic Games, and imagine the raw relief and joy.

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On-court with jubilant GB players after historic win

Filming on-court as the team celebrated became one of those moments where every hair stands on end. It's easy to be dismissive about handball - a sport little-known in Britain, even though it is widely played and loved in other parts of Europe - but any sports fan knows when something special is happening.

This win had been Britain's target since the elite handball programme was founded in 2006, with extra funding in place ahead of the 2012 Games. The initial intake included Ciaran Williams, now the team captain. For him, victory on home soil is just as big a deal.

"I've been here four years, and I've been waiting for that since day one. It's unbelievable. It gives me goosebumps to think about it," he told me.

"Our faces speak louder than any words could. Some people were in tears. It means everything to everyone and we're ecstatic. It's a long road ahead, but this is the perfect stepping stone towards it."

Britain beat Belgium in a friendly in Brussels at the end of May, making a competitive win - and a home win - seem all the more realistic. But, by the time they faced Bulgaria in the final game of their qualifying group for the 2012 European Championships, they had already lost to Cyprus on Thursday and Estonia on Friday, and were out of the reckoning to qualify.

Conjuring a win on Saturday therefore looked fairly unlikely from the outset, even more so when Britain trailed 26-20 (roughly the equivalent of being 3-1 down in football) with 15 of the 60 minutes to go.

But roared on by fans who made enough noise for an arena 10 times the size - yes, there were vuvuzelas - something happened to Britain. A belief the team had never previously dared possess settled like an electric field.

The Bulgarians lost their cool and, with it, a couple of players to temporary two-minute suspensions. Britain exploited the extra man and drew level. Larsson's winner, which took an eternity to nestle in the unguarded far corner of the net, marked the first time Britain had led the game. With two seconds left.

"It's been a long time coming," said White. "Usually we're behind by four or five goals near the end of the game, and we've no real fight left. But today we clawed it back.

"It shows you have to fight till the last minute otherwise you might as well not bother turning up. The coach is always telling us not to go into it half-hearted, so that's what I did, I threw myself at everything and got whatever I could behind the ball. Luckily, it paid off."

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Best of the action from Britain's defeat by Estonia on Friday

The win is an achievement but, set against the rest of Team GB for 2012 - which will include dozens of genuine gold-medal contenders across almost every Olympic sport - unbridled joy at winning one game (a dead rubber in a pre-qualifying tournament at that) could look a little underwhelming.

That would miss the point. This team is an experiment in a sport where Britain has never had a presence. It is the equivalent of forming a track cycling team from nothing. Even Dave Brailsford, the British Cycling performance director often cited as the closest thing to a god of Olympic sporting success, would struggle to fashion medal prospects in six years.

Being competitive is the first challenge and Olympic medals simply cannot be a worry at this stage. One win does not yet make Britain a routinely competitive force, and British Handball must now set their next target towards that.

They are expected to take their time over it as we head into handball's off-season, with games unlikely to get under way again much before August. Britain's players, many of whom were leading entirely different lives until talent identification schemes picked them out, graft away with European club sides in between GB fixtures, so they will be making the most of much-needed time off.

Plenty of cash was made available to start the programme in 2006 but much of that was cut in 2009, as funding body UK Sport addressed a shortfall by targeting their efforts on sports with a realistic shot at winning medals in 2012.

"A lot of us are going broke and it's days like these you play sport for," said White, who was a football goalkeeper until British Handball selected him in 2008. He now grinds out a living at Danish side BSV, where he has occasionally made the first team squad but is yet to take to the court in anger.

British players are making big sacrifices to play a sport few people in their home country even know exists.

Ask any of them what they need most to reach the next level, and the answer is simple: more time playing the game. But, when you're not good enough to displace first-team players, that can be hard to come by, which in itself prevents you becoming good enough.

With that in mind, it's hard to see immediately what the next milestone for GB will be. They need a more focused target than simply "win more games" but, as the celebrations wound down, head coach Dragan Djukic admitted that was all he could think of.

"Well, I hope winning turns out to be like some kind of opium - you can't stop. I hope this is just the first step for us," he said. The opium simile is one of myriad poetic quotes from the Serbian, who has a way with words.

"The team is always on the first page for me, but every match has some small heroes, and Bob (White) did a good job today," he added.

"But it was the team who believed until the end, and that is the most important thing to being competitive. We don't have stars, and we won't produce them in the next two years. Our job is to create a winning team with that mentality, that fighting spirit.

"We missed clear chances, but some director up in heaven gave us a last chance to win the game."

Djukic, who shapes and commands his team from the sidelines like a volatile sheepdog, will be key to the British team's development. He is an established, respected coach, who appears to treat Team GB as a personal challenge.

While the team's next target is up in the air, his long-term goal is clear: at the start of the year, he told me he wants to be the man who turns handball into a sport the British play.

The better Britain get on the court, the higher handball's British profile can become with the right marketing, and the closer Djukic gets to winning his game. London 2012 will show him whether he's winning or losing. What he and his team do in the next two years, though, could have an impact at Rio 2016 and beyond.


  • Comment number 1.

    Robert Green conceded one goal... one goal.

    From What I have seen of Handball, the goalkeepers are pretty irrelevant, most shots on target go in.

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't mind Britain giving handball a go, particularly in the light of the Olympics in 2 years, but what happens when they're finished? Will the investment continue? Or will it be quietly forgotten about?

    Also Ollie, I'm interested to know what the handball community abroad thinks - are they bothered about getting countries like Britain into playing? In a similar fashion to the ICC wanting to get other nations playing cricket for example.

  • Comment number 3.

    It is true that in handball a high proportion of attempts on goal go in, like in basketball the scoring is very regular. However this makes goalkeeping probably the hardest and most important job, and instead of it being about how many mistakes you make, it's about how many saves you can pull off. When the outfield players are good enough to score with almost every attack, saving 25% of attempts rather than 10% would make the game almost certainly safe.

  • Comment number 4.

    Many goals in handball come from fast breaks. A goalkeeper's ability to save a shot and quickly deliver the ball to his team-mates while the opponents are still running back can often turn defence into attack and make all the difference.

  • Comment number 5.

    Yeah, here in denmark there's a saying in handball that the keeper is approximately 50 per cent of the team - a great keeper makes all the difference.

    As for the interest abroad I think that many people would love to see Great Britain in on the championships, both male and female (female handball is often said to be the most popular female team sport in the world) - It's a big sport and it sucks that Britain isn't in on it. It's such a thrilling sport, though I like football, I actually find handball far more exciting and interesting with the speed, the many goals and physical brutality.
    Also, we love it when "new" teams make it - like the Netherlands and Iceland recently qualifying for the female European Championship in december (Iceland have been awsome on the mens side for years but pretty much invisible on the womens)as well as Montenegro qualifying, they actually have had some of the best female handballplayers in the world for years but haven't had big results as a team.

  • Comment number 6.

    Unounos is a pretty regular negative 'contributor' to handball forums, and seems to take pleasure from that negativity. I wouldn't read too much into his comments, the rest of the comments are more pertinent. To answer Heavens2Murgatroyd, contrary to what the media say, handball has been played continuously in Britain since the 60's, we just lacked the developement funding for a long time, there is a small dedicated group developing the sport here, and in the last 2 years thousands of new handball level one coaches have been trained at teacher training colleges and are now brining the sport to tens of thousands of schoolkids for the first time.

    This current GB squad were gathered four years ago, but there have been GB teams,(and England, Scotland etc. for decades)so players have played less than 2 or 3 years, but many have played in the UK since they were in primary school, including the captain in the feature, Ciaran Williams, and No.21, Chris McDermott, who has just won a 3 year pro contract in one of Europe's top leagues.

    Speaking as someone privelidged to be at these games, and indeed most of the other games GB have played in recent years, the keeper was the man who turned the Bulgaria game our way. When 6 goals down, he made 5 saves, whilst with the possession those saves gave, we scored and brought the match back to a point we could win it.

    It can grow, it won't displace fotball, but neither will anything else. Elsewhere in the wrold, it dwarfs cricket and rugby and probably a dozen other sports combined, so maybe it can get a better foothold here off the back of Olympic coverage. You can see what an exciting game it is?

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks all for the comments.

    I remember when I first started watching handball, it was hard to fully grasp the part the keepers were playing. It does, first time round, look as though they're largely ornamental with so many goals going in.

    But Lesdyxic's summary of what happened on Saturday pinpoints why the goalkeeper is so important. They have a power to change the momentum of games that nobody else on the team can match. One save, and one quick distribution of the ball, can turn a goal against into a goal for. Do that twice in a row and you're starting to build a lead or, as was the case on Saturday, eat into a deficit - and those last five or 10 minutes were a privilege to watch.

    As for Robert Green, believe me, I'm not having a pop. As goalkeeper at my school I once conceded 14 in a game. I imagine plenty of handball keepers have got through games conceding fewer. (I blamed the ball, too.)

    Heavens2Murgatroyd - the question about what happens to handball post-2012 is a very valid one. I'm hoping to write something around that some time soon, because it's an important question for several Olympic sports, particularly those like handball where medals in 2012 aren't really a prospect. Why fund the teams now if they won't pose a threat in 2012 and that funding will disappear afterwards? Or will funding levels continue towards Rio 2016 and beyond, in the hope of establishing the sport in Britain?

    As for the handball community abroad question, thanks to mdssleeper for providing a far better answer than I could.

  • Comment number 8. a further response Ollie, one issue not mentioned by mdssleeper, the handball powers-that-be in Europe that be would love GB and/or the US to be stronger. Pan-European TV coverage for the likes of the handball Champions League is one thing, but the English speaking advertising market is vast and valuable. The European Handball Fedration would love to see GB make an impact, the only viable team currently, as GB are some way ahead of the US at the moment. Teams in Europe are generally very supportive to try to help us develop. We are an iconic nation in the world, and many 'smaller' nations feel great kudos is attached to helping rouse what may one day prove to be a slumbering giant in this sport.
    So far as keeper stats go, a good international keeper will have a 40% save ratio of the shots he faces. I have been at matches where both GB keepers, Jesper Parker and Bob White have made in excess of 50% save ratios.
    So far as restricting money to medal hopes, I'm afraid if you do this you would send home 75% of Team GB tomorrow,including what many would feel to be very traditional British sports. And where do you draw the line? Does someone 10th in the world in their sport get funding? They're unlikely to get a medal, but still one of the world's top athletes, and maybe, just maybe, it turns out to be THEIR day?
    Such cuts would make this the smallest home nation squad in the modern Olympic era. Is that a record we want?

  • Comment number 9.

    Well done GB! I really hope that handball finally takes off in this country.

    To #1, the goalkeepers are not irrelevant at all. You're obviously comparing it with football, which is wrong.

  • Comment number 10.

    I used to be goalkeeper in Belgian first division. In my days, 20-25 goals per team were average. Nowadays, partly thanks to new rules that speed up the pace of the game, 30-35 goals per side is common.

    I can understand that most people think little of handball goalkeepers. You only get to see the highlights of the game on television, so it is logical that any television report will show more goals than saves.

    It helps if you understand that in handball, there are roughly two kinds of attempts: from short and from long distance. Or if you will: shots where the attacking player is still challenged by a defender and clear shots.

    If a field player attempts a shot from the 9 meter circle, he will probably be challenged by a defender. The defense of his teammate and the fact that the goalkeeper has more time to react, will give the goalkeeper a fair chance to save the shot.

    However, when the field player attempts from a short distance, or after a fast counter attack, the goalkeeper has very little time to react and must try to anticipate the shot and 'cover' as much of the goal area with his body as possible, rather than waiting untill his opponent throws.

    That being said, I think a save-rate of 40-45% is average for a handball goalkeeper.

    PS: Pardon my poor English...


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