Handball battles for a spot among Israel's top sports

The sound of pounding drums filled the arena on Monday while fans screamed orders to players, the referee, at each other - "Get aggressive!", "Yalla Maccabi!"

handball (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The sound of pounding drums filled the arena on Monday while fans screamed orders to players, the referee, at each other - "Get aggressive!", "Yalla Maccabi!" On the court, players in yellow and red were drenched in sweat, spitting and shoving each other while battling to score that crucial goal. But this wasn't Bloomfield Stadium or the Nokia Arena. The derby being played out in the tensest of atmospheres was between Maccabi and Hapoel Rishon Lezion, Israel's leading handball teams playing in the third of a best-of-five series in the Israeli league finals. The Gan Nachum arena in Rishon was packed with around 1,500 fans who yelled, chanted, clapped their hands and stomped in time to the drum beats throughout the 90-minute game. This was no soccer match, but the attitude of the supporters ensured it definitely resembled one. A middle aged man wore the Maccabi flag over his shoulders like a cape and shouted at players through his megaphone while teenagers in red Hapoel shirts jumped up from their visitor seats when their team was ahead. Yosi Geva, a former captain and current CEO of Maccabi Rishon Lezion, said that even though it still lags behind soccer and basketball, handball has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. "I believe it's the most attractive sport there is, but if the entire country agreed with me we would be number one in popularity as well, and we are not there," he told The Jerusalem Post. Geva said the lack of advertising, media attention and general money flow has meant it has not become as popular as he believes it can, and will be. But the increase in competition in the local league has only been good for the sport - Asa Tel Aviv and Nes Ziona gave the Rishon teams a run for their money in the semifinal playoff series. "Differences between the records of the first four teams have shrunk, and this creates more interest and suspense," Geva said. "None of the teams is a runaway favorite, and even the fans of the winning team love the tension." On Monday Hapoel edged its arch rival by a single goal (29-28), giving it a slender advantage going into Friday's fourth game. Hapoel captain Idan Maimon led all scorers with nine goals and scored the winner with under two minutes left. Hapoel's John Oncha followed Maimon with eight goals, while Maccabi players Yoav Ne'eman and Orosh Mendich trailed close behind with seven and six goals each. Handball is played on a 20 by 40 meter court, with goals measuring two by three meters on either side. Six players on each team dribble and throw the ball, which resembles a small volleyball, and score points by tossing it past goalies, who can block using their entire body. "The game is fast, upbeat, attractive, and there is excitement throughout the game. Even a player on defense has more tools than defenders in other sports," Geva said, referring to the way players aggressively block each other. Handball leagues have existed in Israel since 1936, but have become more popular recently due to after-school handball clubs, close-call games and what Geva called "crazy fans, but crazy in the best sense of the word." The increase in the number of live games being shown on the Sport5 channels has also clearly given the sport a higher profile around the country. Itay Azullay, the 17-year-old self-proclaimed captain of Maccabi Rishon's fans, said he grew up around handball. "I've been playing handball since first grade. Gilad Maor, Maccabi Rishon's coach, was my neighbor, so I signed up because of him," Azullay said, yelling over beating drums. Haim Kahiri, a Hapoel fan, said he thinks handball is even more exciting than other sports popular in Israel. "It's not like in soccer, where you can watch the game for an hour and a half and there's not a single goal," Kahiri said. "There's a lot of interest in the game. It's aggressive." Maccabi and Hapoel Rishon Lezion are rivals, but, "At the end of the game, we're all friends again. There's a slap here and there, but it's all good," Kahiri said. However, not everyone involved seemed to have the same relaxed attitude. "In Rishon, what attracts people to handball is Hapoel's hate for Maccabi and Maccabi's hate for Hapoel. Nothing else," Maor said, minutes after his team lost the derby. Israel is not a sports-centric country, and those who are sports fans gravitate towards soccer and basketball, Maor added. "But here in Rishon, we invest in this sport. That's why we have these achievements with Hapoel and Maccabi," he said. Both teams have featured in European competition with Maccabi most recently losing in the second round of this season's European Cup 29-21 to Portugal's ABC de Braga-Andebol. Hapoel last made it to European Cup tournaments in 2002, where it lost 31-26 to Celje Pivovarna Lasko of Slovania in the third round. While the atmosphere is close to that of a soccer game, Ben-Ami Sade, CEO of Hapoel Rishon Lezion, said handball fans are a step above the rest when it comes to behavior and diversity in gender and age. "There are more seniors, more kids. There is not that violence in the crowd and the game itself that other sports have," Sade said. At the game there was a good mix of males and females and the women were not only in the seats, but shouting just as much as men. Sade, who managed Rishon's soccer team before moving to handball, was, however, less positive about the future than Geva. Because there is less money in handball, it tends to flourish in smaller communities, Sade said. "It has not advanced the way it should have in recent years. A lot of teens are drawn to the money and such, which soccer offers more of," he said, "In Germany, the father of all handball where 10,000 people come to every game and fill auditoriums, there are no teams in Bern, Munich or Frankfurt. "Teams are in smaller cities, where the whole town rallies around handball."