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Handball is one of the oldest known games played with a ball; versions of the game were played in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome

Stefan Andrews

Handball is definitely not a popular sport in the United States, but in other parts of the world, Europe in particular, there is a craze about it. A team sport, with two teams of seven players as played in modern times, it is considered to be one of the oldest known games with a ball.

A number of accounts suggest that versions of the game were played in different places around the world more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians most likely had some different ball games. Drawings found at Saqqara, the necropolis for their ancient capital of Memphis, vividly illustrate people playing what was probably a game of handball.

The German Democratic Republic handball national team of women celebrating success at the 22nd Olympic Games (1980). Photo credit

The German Democratic Republic handball national team of women celebrating success at the 22nd Olympic Games (1980). Photo credit

 

A handball match between USSR and Kuwait during the 22nd Olympic Games (1980). Photo credit

A handball match between USSR and Kuwait during the 22nd Olympic Games (1980). Photo credit

According to Sports Search Data, “It is also believed that the person behind the popularity among Greek colonies was Alexander the Great. The popularity of the game went on to spread in other countries of the Roman Empire”.

In ancient Rome, it was women who reportedly played a version of handball called “expulsim ludere,” and they also used special courts for it. On the other hand, the Roman army practiced a ball game known as “Hapastum,” that resembles rugby. Later on, “Hapastrum” was transformed into a particular type of training for the soldiers.

People played handball in Central America too. According to findings collected at various archaeological sites on the continent, handball games played a fairly important part in their culture. It is deemed that the people of Chichimeca were the first players of handball there.

Balls used back in the day were made of leather and filled with either hay or other plants. The exact details and rules, however, of these ancient versions of handball are not precisely known.

A seven-meter throw in handball

A seven-meter throw in handball

 

Women’s handball: Players moves towards the goal prior to throwing the ball; the goalkeeper defends the goal. photo credit

Women’s handball: Players moves towards the goal prior to throwing the ball; the goalkeeper defends the goal. photo credit

The game persisted and evolved throughout the middle ages. In France, it was a game both popular among noblemen and peasants alike and was called “Jeux de Paume” (“palm play”). The balls used in medieval days were often made of pieces of clothes stitched together. In the later part of this era, some players also started to use gloves for better hitting of the ball, and some also used items that well resemble early tennis rackets. In medieval times, reportedly, the game of handball was even played among the Inuit people of Greenland.

By the 19th-century, handball was well established in Denmark, Germany, and Ukraine. It was very popular in the Czech Republic as well, where it was called “házená.” By the end of the 19th-century, handball was finally codified around the Scandinavian countries and in Germany. In the modern history of the games, these are the countries that have also demonstrated some of the best results at European and world championships.

Karl Schelenz, the so-called “father” of modern handball. A drawing by Emil Stumpp (1924).

Karl Schelenz, the so-called “father” of modern handball. A drawing by Emil Stumpp (1924).

The first written set of team handball rules is attributed to Holger Nielsen the Danish gym teacher and Olympic medalist. The modern set of the game rules was published on 29th October 1917 by Marx Heiser, Karl Schelenz, and Erich Konigh from Germany. These rules were polished and further improved by Schelenz who is sometimes called the “father” of modern handball.

Read another story from us: One of the oldest board games known to man is the game of Backgammon

In 1925, Germany and Belgium played the first international game of men’s handball. The women teams of Germany and Austria followed through with a first game in 1930. As in those days, this was an outdoors sport, but by the 1970’s, the Scandinavian countries had successfully transformed it into an indoors one. Aside from Europe, handball also became very popular in the Far East, where South Korea is now one of the best performing players, as well as North Africa and parts of South America.