Over the course of last season, we ran a series of features in the Official Matchday Programme meeting some Arsenal-supporting London 2012 Olympic hopefuls. We started with handball player Bobby White...
Handball has been given a host nation position at the 2012 Olympics by the British Olympics Association, a huge incentive for anyone involved with the sport.
Played on a court 40m long and 20m wide, a handball team is made up of seven players, the six outfielders aiming to throw the ball into a 3m wide 2m high net from anywhere on the court except from within the 6m semi-circle patrolled by the goalkeeper.
Leading the GB team into competition will be England’s skipper, goalkeeper and ardent Arsenal fan Bobby White. In the first of our Olympics stories, Bobby explained the rather unusual way in which he progressed into the sport, as well as discussing his love for Arsenal.
Firstly Bobby, tell us why you are an Arsenal supporter?
My dad’s side of the family are Gooners from Finsbury Park, so I had no choice really. My first match was when I was about six at Highbury against QPR on Boxing Day , who my mum’s side of the family support. We won 3-0 and I’ve loved them ever since. My brother has season tickets at Emirates Stadium and I get to games when I can but the handball season runs alongside football’s and I live abroad so don’t get to as many games as I’d like.
Do any Arsenal players particularly stand out for you down the years?
David Seaman was my hero from a young age because I was a football goalkeeper since I was eight. My dad was taking a training session for my brother’s team and needed someone in goal, I went in and have been there ever since. I liked Ian Wright of course and Tony Adams, Anders Limpar too and, even though he wasn’t with us for long, I really liked Stefan Schwarz.
Was keeping goal in football how you got into handball?
Indirectly. I’d got to a decent level as a goalkeeper, played for my county and then semi-pro with Ardley United but in 2007 I heard of an initiative called Steve Redgrave’s Sporting Giants which took tall - 6ft 3in and over - talented sportsmen from other sports and looked at their suitability to make it into Olympic competition.
There were 2,500 applicants for the programme and they stressed that only a handful of people might make it in the sport in which they were selected and maybe none would get to the Olympics. I applied for volleyball, rowing and handball and was selected to go into the handball set-up in January 2008.
The trial process was hard and lots of people fell by the wayside. It was made clear that you would have to make sacrifices if you wanted to get to Olympic standard and lots of people couldn’t cope with the training or being away from home at our training camp in Denmark. The guys that worked hardest are the basis of the GB team now.
Within a year of being selected on the Sporting Giants scheme I was in the GB team. It was actually pretty bizarre as this was still such a new sport you actually didn’t know all the rules. I had never seen a handball game until the day I went to the trials - I was looking it up on Google the day before!
So have GB made good progress in your time with them?
It’s been huge. When I started, we’d lose to recreational teams from the fifth division in Denmark. Now we are at a good level, we beat Italy in April and they are ranked 25th in the world and we won our first competitive game last summer against Bulgaria, who are a decent side. We played Brazil in June this year and lost by seven goals - which is a close game in handball as the average score is around 25-30 goals - and they’re in the World Championships and Olympics every year.
So what’s the format of the Olympics?
Two groups of six, and four from each group qualify for the knockout stages. We’re aiming to beat the non-European teams in our group, we know that with a bit more development we can do it. And who knows, if we got one of the weaker teams in the quarter-finals we could even get further, especially with home advantage and 7,000 fans cheering us on.
Being a handball keeper looks a perilous job…
They say you have to be a bit mad to be a goalkeeper in football, well it’s the same in handball. Recently, Germany’s Christian Zeitz throw was measured at 130 kmh - imagine getting hit by that from six metres!
It hurts, but you get used to it. I love the game because you are involved all the time, it’s so end-to end. In football ‘keepers can be out of the match for a while, I didn’t enjoy that. I get a feeling from handball that I never did in football. If you’ve made a few good saves you can feel invincible, even though you have someone throwing the ball at you from point-blank range, you are convinced they can’t get it past you, it’s an amazing feeling, like you’re ten foot tall.
The sport is huge in Europe and you noticed the handball influence on an Arsenal player didn’t you?
I spotted it straight away in Wojciech Szczesny’s ‘keeping. If you look at how he comes out on a one-on-one he puts his arms out wide, as a handball ‘keeper would, rather than putting them low as is generally coached. Peter Schmeichel was the most obvious example of a ‘keeper who used handball techniques, he was a very good handball player. You see it in his son Kasper too.
You must be hoping the Olympics helps handball develop in the UK…
Grassroots stuff is now going on through the British Handball Association and there are people going into schools. It’s a great game because, like football, a group of lads with a ball could just go on the park and play. I really hope there will be lots of handball clubs starting up after the Olympics because it’s all about people being exposed to the sport. It’s a big chance to put the sport on the map.
Finally, back to Arsenal and what are your hopes for the season?
It will be interesting to see what happens before the transfer window closes. Like all fans I’d like to see a few more players come in but with those we have I think we can push for top three, bare minimum.