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Handball fever washes over Croatia and drives a nation into ecstasy

By  Jan 25, 2020


My knowledge of handball is probably comparable to an elephant’s knowledge of skiing. “It’s like water polo but on the land,” explained a close friend. As neither water polo nor handball are popular, in fact not even played, in the UK, I never got a chance to see these team sports whilst I was growing up. Yes, there probably was a three-minute piece on handball at the Olympics as an “exotic sport” but that was it. Handball is as popular in England as cricket is popular in Croatia, yes that’s a good comparison.

Now this column is either a brilliant idea or the kiss of death, as I am writing way before Croatia plays their semi-final clash. So either you’ll all be on a wave of euphoria or reaching for another normabel! I have never really understood the rules of handball, it would seem on paper that its easy, I mean how difficult can it be to throw a ball in a big net. Well it turns out that it is actually quite difficult.

The only game I have really paid any attention to was when Croatia narrowly beat Germany. Exciting, nail-biting and most satisfying of all the Germans lost.

Quite strange how the Germans, Austrians and Danish all play handball but the English don’t. Well not that strange, we were busy teaching our Empire our sports, like cricket and rugby. And clearly this island/Empire mentality rubbed off on the Americans, who made their own sports, baseball, basketball and American football. Did I enjoy the match against the Germans, yes!

Will I watch the semi-final, probably not. Will I watch the final, maybe. Sport is now pretty much unique, as a television content in today’s world. When I was a teenager (yes, all those centuries ago) TV programs were much more central to society. I can remember at college having to write a project about “The role of Only Fools and Horses on society.” Why were they different? Were they better, not really. They were different because they had everyone’s attention. There were no smart phones (or even dumb phones), no YouTube, no Netflix, no streaming services, none of these even existed. Which meant you had two choices – either watch the big, black box in the corner of the room or not. It was a 100 percent captive audience. And this lead to, so-called, “water cooler moments.” Friends, family, work colleagues would chat about what they watched on TV the night before, it was a chance for social interaction. And the reason it was called “water cooler” was that people at work would chat about last night’s TV hit whilst filling up their glass from a water cooler. Those moments have gone and they will never return.

Now we are all watching different programs on different devices, many of the time actually dual screening and watching two different programs at the same time. Another chance for social interaction is flushed down the toilet. And once again proves that social media should be renamed as anti-social media!

But sport is unique. Sport has all the drama of a Agatha Christie novel, all the excitement of a Star Wars flick, all the tension of a Stephen King horror and all this is happening live or uncut in our living rooms. Why do you think that sporting events capture so much marketing money, why sporting heroes are so well paid, because it is a product that is unmatched on TV.

The match between Croatia and Germany was watched, at its peak, by 1.2 million people in Croatia. That is pretty much a third of the population watching one channel, one program, one match on TV. No other TV broadcast will ever come close to that, and it wasn’t even the final match of the tournament. Sport creates emotion, either love, hate, excitement, anger, joy or ecstasy. It can make us cry with happiness and cry with sadness. And it is the only, I repeat the only, television product that has proved resistant to today’s world. Not only resistant but has thrived.

We live in a world where we have learnt to do things and watch things when we want. We thought that we were taking back control. How wrong we were. How stupid we have all been. But sport, at least for now, is still in control. And we should praise that.

The Voice of Dubrovnik


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