Handball: Five things to know about one of France’s most popular sports

It's huge in France, but barely registers in English-speaking countries - so as the French handball teams hope for medals at the Tokyo Olympics, here's what you need to know about this fast-paced sport.

Handball: Five things to know about one of France's most popular sports
France's Timothey NGuessan shoots during the match between France and Brazil at Tokyo 2020. Photo: Martin BERNETTI / AFP.

Here are five things you need to know before strapping yourself in to watch the hotly-tipped French teams at the Tokyo Olympics.

1. It’s one of the most popular sports in France

Everybody who is part of a sports club in France must have a licence (permit), which makes it relatively easy to compare the number of people formally participating in different sports using government data.

In 2019, around 492,000 people belonged to a handball club. That made it the sixth most practiced sport in France, behind football, tennis, horse-riding, judo and basketball. It was even more popular than rugby (326,000 licences).

2. The rules are fairly simple

Part of this popularity may stem from the fact that handball is a relatively easy sport to get to grips with. Two thirty-minute halves are played between two teams of seven players.

Once you have received the ball, you are allowed to take up to three steps, and hold onto the ball for three seconds, before having to pass it to a teammate.

You score by throwing the ball into the net. You can shoot from outside the 6-metre zone which surrounds each goal, or you can jump into this goal area, but in that case you have to release the ball before touching the ground.

You are allowed to touch the ball with any part of your body from the knee up, although this restriction does not apply to goalkeepers.

3. It’s a fast-paced game

The rules of handball mean that the game is played at a very fast pace. Not only do you have to release the ball after three seconds, but “passive play” is also banned, meaning a team is not allowed to simply throw the ball amongst themselves to run down the clock with no intention of scoring. 

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It’s also a high-scoring sport – France beat Brazil 34-29 on Monday – making it easy for beginners to become engrossed even before understanding all of the intricacies of the game.

4. The Europeans dominate

Handball has its origins in northern Europe before spreading to the rest of the continent. According to the Olympics website, “Handball was created and developed in Denmark, Sweden and Germany in the late 19th century”.

And that history is reflected in the medal tables: the Republic of Korea is the only non-European country to win a medal with the men’s team, taking silver in 1988. The Korean women’s team, however, has won six medals, including two golds, since women were first able to compete at the 1976 Olympics.

The United States has competed several times in the past, but has not sent a men’s or women’s team to the Olympics since 1996.

5. France is a powerhouse

Since indoor handball was introduced at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, no country has been more successful in the men’s game than France. The French men took gold in 2008 and 2012, silver in Rio in 2016, and bronze in 1992.

France also won four out of five World Men’s Handball Championships held between 2009 and 2017.

The women’s team has also tasted success, becoming world champions in 2017, and taking the silver medal in the 2016 Olympics.

Both French teams will therefore be hoping to make it all the way in Tokyo.

The French women’s team will come up against Spain at 2:30 pm French time on Tuesday, July 27th, after defeating Hungary in their opening game. The men’s team will face Germany in their next match at 2:30 pm on Wednesday.

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French government: All athletes must be vaccinated to compete in France

All athletes and sports professionals who wish to compete in France will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19, government sources told AFP on Monday.

Unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic
Unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic. Photo: Oscar del Polzo/AFP

The French parliament has just given the go-ahead for the health pass to be converted into a vaccine pass, which means that anyone wishing to enter leisure and cultural venues – including sports grounds and stadiums – will have to be vaccinated.

This goes for the crowd, but also professional sports players and staff. The government has indicated that exemptions will not be made athletes who are based outside France.

The ministry said a new vaccine pass, “applies to everyone, to volunteers and to elite sportspeople, including those coming from abroad, until further notice.”

READ ALSO What changes when France’s health pass becomes a vaccine pass

Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu said last week that certain events like the French Open could have a special exemption, when asked whether Novak Djokovic could play in the tournament, but this appears now to not be the case.

Questions had been asked about whether the unvaccinated Djokivic – recently deported from Australia – would be able to play in the French Open in May, but the ruling would affect all visiting sports professionals, including rugby teams from England, Ireland and Italy who are due to play in France during the Six Nations tournament in February and March.

Until now a health pass has been sufficient to enter sports grounds, which means unvaccinated players and fans were able to use a negative Covid test.

However once the vaccine pass enters into effect – scheduled to be later this week – only proof of vaccination will be affected.

French domestic sports teams were given the choice of either making sure that all their players and staff were fully vaccinated or playing behind closed doors.