Gwangju 2015: Universiade handball medals in Naju are a hit

Korea and Switzerland head to head in the handball bronze medal match (photo: Davis Harrigan)
Korea and Switzerland head to head in the handball bronze medal match (photo: Davis Harrigan)

The intensity of handball makes it so hard to turn away for even a second.  When you do, the ball’s already managed to make its way into the net at the other end of the court.

As the Universiade wrapped up an incredible competition, so did Switzerland, Korea, Serbia and Portugal in the men’s bronze and gold medal matches.  Thundersticks held by fans in the crowd turned a cavernous stadium into an electric sporting nirvana.

It could not have been more appropriate the bronze medal match went not only to extra time, but to penalties.  Switzerland and Korea were toe to toe for the entirety of the game.  Handball is not just about pace, where the frenetic goal circle attacks take time to form, but about skill and tactics.

Players cannot simply expect to find the goal with every throw.  Six opposition players are finding ways to block entrance to the attacking circle, attempting to thwart potential goals and force a turnover.

While the sport is very European driven, Korea made medal matches not just in the men’s competition but the women’s as well, taking home a silver medal.  It is an incredibly important step for the competition, which does not currently sit on the FISU compulsory Summer Universiade sports list.

Technical delegate Frantisek Taborsky, from the Czech Republic, comments that the Asian nations are truly stepping up to the plate, helping to grow the sport outside of the EU.

“Now, it’s nearly worldwide.  In the International Handball Federation (IHF) we have nearly 200 members, one of the biggest federations.  In some countries, handball is number one for football.  Australia is also starting to play handball, together with New Zealand.”

While the popularity cannot be questioned, some teams that competed in Gwangju had a vastly different dynamic to their World Championship or championship line-up.  However, it hasn’t stopped the standard being top notch, says Taborsky.

“For example, Israel was here with the national team, because they are all students.  Portugal only have a few national players, but the level is still very high.  Some of the best teams aren’t here, like France, nobody from Scandinavia.  They mostly have professional players, and many students are not professional.”

Taborsky says that handball’s modern sport dynamic allows for far more engagement, where spectators can see two or three goals in one minute.

Portugal’s enthusiasm after their victory, and motivation right throughout the gold medal match justified their performance on-field against Serbia.  Considered the outsiders for the final, Portugal won through structured gameplay and catching Serbia off-guard.

Where Portugal were stylish, Switzerland were akin to a role model for the Universiade motto, “today’s students, tomorrow’s leaders.” Coach Michael Suter says above all, he’s simply ecstatic about taking a medal home.

“It makes us very, very happy, in the end it was one ball against the Koreans from the seven metre shootout and it was enough (for us to win).  It’s very close in sport, and the luck was also on our side today.  We took the medal home against the Koreans at home.”

Portugal celebrate gold
Portugal celebrate gold

As the Universiade brings incredibly varying cultures together, so did the bronze medal match.

“It was the very fast and quick Asian culture, versus us, the bigger and stronger guys.  It was hard at the end, with three guys given red cards.”

The medal is not only just a victory statistic but a motivational kickstart for the Switzerland team, where some are potentially aspiring to bigger heights, says Suter.

“I think it gives a lot of power and energy for our sport, and our country will recognise that.  For the players, it’s very important, because there a lot of young players, they’ve had some successes and we saw that in this game.”

Attitude on court in any sport is a key indicator and strength in being able to bond as a team, and Switzerland’s ability to stop the Korean agility becoming a hindrance not only kept them in the game, it kept them hopeful right until the end.

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of handball is the goalkeeper being used as an attacking player.  Suter says that while playing a seven-on-six style had its risks, it also had benefits when heading into attack.

“We had to always try to go two players against one of them, trying to defend deep that we always had the same height.  Other teams weren’t playing like this, but we had problems in attack so we tried something different.  Of course there’s some risk if you lose the ball, but it was one big help for us today.”

With the Switzerland supporters drowning the Koreans out, the bronze medal was like a gold medal victory at the Universiade, a triumphant Suter declares.  It wasn’t just the red and white crosses getting in on the medal action, either.  Russia’s high intensity clash with Korea also ended in plenty of bumps and bruises, while Portugal’s win over Serbia encapsulated the spirit of the Universiade.

It could well be that the continuing popularity of the sport helps boost the profile for future Summer Universiades.

Davis Harrigan (AUS), FISU Young Reporter


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