Nico Mukendi competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019.
If you've ever played soccer, chances are you would love team handball. The same goes if you've ever played basketball or water polo, or, well, just about any sport. Despite being a sport that is lesser known in the U.S. than some of its Olympic counterparts, handball has been around since the end of the 19th century — and is one of the most popular team sports in Europe. (It was also the second-most ticketed sport at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, second only to soccer.)
Team USA goalkeeper Rene Ingram — who grew up in Germany — has been playing the sport since he was seven. We asked the 21-year-old dual citizen to explain the ins and outs of the sport he has loved since he was a child.
Here are five things you didn’t know about this fast-paced and exciting Olympic sport.
1. It’s really popular in Europe
If you ask Ingram why he thinks handball isn’t as popular in the U.S., “that’s a tough question,” he said. “I think it has to do with history. It’s been played in Europe for so long.”
“Everybody in Europe knows what handball is,” he explained about the sport that Europeans often consider the most popular sport after soccer. “People from the U.S. usually ask if it’s the game where you hit the ball up against the wall,” he laughed. He went on to explain how team handball is different from court handball, which is typically played on a squash court and players bounce around a small rubber ball with their hands.
Currently working hard to help the U.S. handball team qualify for their first Olympics, he said he hopes that “future generation of athletes in the U.S. look at our sport and think to themselves: this is what I want to do.”
2. It has something in common with a lot of other summer sports
Having played handball for most of his life, Ingram revealed he has heard it compared to almost every sport out there. “A lot of people use the comparison to water polo because of how it’s played with the passing and the movement,” he said.
It also draws strong comparisons to basketball, “although there’s definitely more conflict than what’s allowed in basketball,” he said about his sport that allows for a level of grabbing and holding the opponent.
“Soccer is different because with handball you can use your whole body to defend, and by using your hand to throw the ball you can make much more precise passes,” which in turn allows for more scoring.
Even the ball gets compared to other sports. While similar to a volleyball, the ball used in handball is “smaller, heavier, and not pumped up as much because otherwise it would be really hard to catch the ball.”
One trick many players use to help catch the ball is to “apply some kind of glue on their fingers,” Ingram said. “Because the ball gets sweaty so fast that if you don’t, then you would lose the ball every possession.”
3. It could almost be considered a track and field event
Despite people drawing a lot of similarities between handball and soccer, one of the biggest differences with handball is “the court is smaller, so there is a lot of running. In soccer and in football you have this huge field and you can be more systematic about your moves, and have more time to relax,” Ingram explained.
And even though a soccer field is more than three times the size of a handball court “handball players run up and down the court for 60 minutes straight.” If their court was any bigger he guessed, “Players would probably die of exhaustion.”
The nonstop action is why he believes “it is probably the hardest sport.”
4. It’s a contact sport, but with little to no padding
Unlike most other contact sports, handball players wear little to no padding. “Usually goalkeepers have padding around the groin area — for obvious reasons,” he explained. But other than that, he said padding is only common if someone is trying to protect a previous injury.
And there are injuries, the most common being “shoulder injuries, due to exhaustion, or ankle and knee injuries,” he said.
Because of the sport’s full contact, Ingram thinks, “it would be one of the best sports for Americans to watch if they loved football because of the intensity of it.”
5. It’s a sport with lots of goals
A lot of criticism about soccer is the low-scoring games, or ending in a tie, but Ingram said that handball doesn’t have that problem. “It is definitely not a low scoring game,” he remarked about the fast-paced and energetic sport.
Most professional teams can score anywhere from 20-35 goals per match, with each goal counting as one point and many players scoring hat tricks in a single game.