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EHF EURO

The early kings of handball

Brian Campion

This is the first article in the 'Battle for the Throne' series looking back at handball's rich history on the eve of the Men's EHF EURO 2022.

Every two years, the battle for the EHF EURO throne takes place. This most elusive of international titles comes hand in hand with a rich history and a special mystique.

As we look ahead to who will be crowned the new kings of Europe in Budapest at the end of January, it is worth remembering this rich history. In the weeks leading up to EHF EURO 2022 we will look back at the kings, queens, pioneers and battlegrounds of handball.

Cast your mind back to simpler times when a few select men played early versions of handball, and find out what influenced them and how the game developed to what we know today.

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Where it all started

During the 19th century, terms like Håndbold in Denmark, Házená in the Czech Republic, Hádzaná in Slovakia, Gandbol in Ukraine, and Torball in Germany were beginning to pop up.

But the earliest rumbles of our sport can be found in Denmark around the 1900s. The early 20th century saw a huge shift in the sporting world, with sports like football looking for structure – the first European football federations were founded in Denmark and the Netherlands in 1889.

The industrial revolution had already taken place and society had a new-found love for machines and systems. The first handball was played in a society that valued strength, dynamism, order and a will to push on. Hardly a coincidence.

The fact that two men in different parts Denmark seemed to have invented, the more or less, the same game – Rasmus Nicolai Ernst in Nyborg and Holger Nielsen in Copenhagen – only further highlights that the core elements of handball scratched an itch that societies in Europe needed at the time, and one which continues right up to the present day.

Fascinating insight was given by Nielsen about how the concept of handball came to him when watching his students play football during their break. In their enthusiasm to win possession they would often use their hands and play in a wildly unstructured way.

Nielsen provided the early framework and order for his students to play with their hands and express their burning desire to hold the ball. He went on to publish the first 18-page rule book in 1906. His handball was, most likely, a version of the sport that would look somewhat crude to the modern fan, but it was nonetheless the basis of the modern-day game.

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Handball takes off

A mere 13 years after the first rule book was published, we move further south to Germany for the next massive influence on our sport. On 29 October 1917, Max Heiser, Karl Schelenz, and Erich Konigh from Germany published the next set of rules.

Schelenz went one step further in 1919 by improving the rules, and it was under this version that the first international matches took place. Germany vs Belgium for men in 1925, and Germany against Austria for women in 1930, were the first official international ties.

Germany, of course, remains a handball powerhouse with the biggest domestic league in Europe and its modern men’s team gearing up for their latest appearance at the EHF EURO in just a few weeks’ time, while Belgium missed out on qualifying.

It is no coincidence that Nielsen, Ernst and Schelenz all were teachers working with children. Nielsen commented that handball came to him “naturally” while watching the kids play and bend and break the rules of football.

The three were also multidisciplinary sportsmen, with Nielsen having won three Olympic medals back in 1896 in sabre, pistol disciplines. Now the sport he played with his students has been at the Olympic Games since 1972.

Likewise, Schelenz was an avid athlete, having ranked third in the long jump at the German national championships. One of Schelenz’s major inputs was the three step and dibble sequence, one of the reasons he is coined the “father” of modern handball.

His influence was huge, but is often a sticking point in the debate of where the sport originated: Denmark, Germany or both? You can make up your own mind on that topic.

The secret to success

The great sports are more than just pure exercise or entertainment. They speak to us on a different level, move us and provide men and women with a stage to become kings and queens – even if just for a brief moment.

Handball is all of this. It is a struggle of wills where the balance of strength and agility of the individual must be carefully struck; qualities that mirror the climate of a bygone era but still ring through to the modern day.

From starting out in small towns in Denmark, handball reached perfection in Germany and from there it launched and went global. And now as we cast our gaze to the EHF EURO 2022, we see the immense results of the founders' labour and inventiveness; 24 teams will enter arena for the 15th edition of the event. The kings and queens have not left the main stage in Europe, they have just entered the hall.

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