Typography
The Puuman Metsästäjät with founders Redlich (2nd row, far left) and Rajala (2nd row, 5th from left).

Handball has little tradition in Finland, but the interest in the sport is increasing steadily. Two dedicated handball enthusiasts are paving the road for the sport in Central Finland.

WHEN thinking about Finland and sports, people usually come up with ice hockey, motor sports and ski jumping, which is hardly surprising, when taking a look at the success Finnish sportsmen and women have achieved in these respective sports.

But this time, we want to tell a story revolving around a relatively unknown sport in Finland - handball. A story about a Finnish Air Force mechanic and a German exchange student and sports fanatic, who set up a handball team and thus basically introduced the sport on a competitive level to Central Finland.

A short introduction to handball

Handball is a team sport, where two teams consisting of six field players and one goalkeeper play against each other. The goal of each team is to throw the ball past the opponents’ goalkeeper as often as possible and thus scoring points – one goal equals one point. The team, that has scored more points after two 30-minute halves wins.

Players are allowed to touch the ball with all body parts, lower legs and feet excluded. When players carry the ball, they may take a maximum of three steps. Then they can choose to either bounce the ball and take up to three more steps, pass it to a team member or attempt to score a goal. If the player chooses to bounce the ball and stops to dribble, he can take three more steps with the ball in his hands, take a pass or try to throw on the goal. But he is not allowed to dribble or bounce it again. He also is not allowed to carry the ball for longer than three seconds. If the player breaks any of these rules, the opponent team gets the ball.

The goalkeeper is the only player that is allowed to stay in the goal area (a half-circle-like area with a radius of six metres) and is not affected by time or step-rules there. Players are allowed to attempt to score only from outside this area. However, they may jump inside the area with the ball, but have to throw or pass, before touching the floor. Players’ throws often exceed a speed of 100km/h when attempting to shoot the ball into the 2x3 metres big goal.

Players can be substituted whenever and any number of times in the game, making substitution a strategic factor in the team’s game plan.

To get possession of the ball, players may block passes or attempts of the opponent, who carries the ball. It is not allowed to grab the ball out of the opponent’s hands or to cling or hold the opponent.

Breaking rules can result in free throws or 7-metre throws and also a penalty for the player.

Website of Puuman Metsästäjät:

http://jaguaarit.com/index/kasipallo/

Handball comes to Central Finland

When Dennis Redlich, a 23-year-old student from Halle, Germany arrived in Finland in late July 2012 in order to study Sports Psychology and Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä, it was clear to him that he wanted to play handball. But Redlich - having been involved in this physical, fast-paced sport as a player as well as coach for his local team since he was 11 years old - soon had to learn that there simply was no possibility to play handball on a regular basis.

Two years before, the two handball clubs HIFK and Riihimäen Cocks had played each other in Jyväskylä as part of attempts of the National Handball Federation to spread the sport to other parts of Finland – the sport had been played nearly exclusively in the south and south-west of the country and thus had been stamped as sport played only by Finland-Swedes. Therefore, school tours were organised in order to give handball more attention among Finnish youth. As part of this promotional tour, the General Manager of Jyväskylä’s local, successful American Football team Jaguaarit, Reo Landen, offered to take a handball team under the wing of his team.

When Jyväskylä-based, 28-year-old Finnish Air Force mechanic and handball enthusiast Jarkko Rajala heard about these plans, he contacted the federation and Landen to declare himself ready to comply with the training and organisation of a handball team. Rajala, originally from Riihimäki and home of perhaps the best handball team currently in the country – the aforementioned Riihimäen Cocks – had played for the Cocks’ junior team and was actively involved in the first teams support group.

Handball is a physical and fast-paced team sport.

The rise of the puma hunters

Through a friend, Redlich and Rajala got in contact with each other and decided to found a handball team. The Puuman Metsästäjät (“puma hunters”) were born.

“Landen and me wanted the teams name to be funny and easy to remember. It also should tell a lot about the team spirit. We wouldn’t take it too seriously and everybody would be welcome to come and try this sport.” Rajala tells us when asked about the team name.

Due to Redlich’s broad experience in the game, they soon decided for him to take over as coach, while Rajala was declared responsible for organisational tasks. Both managed to enthuse friends, colleagues and studying companions with the sport, resulting in a large player intake in a relative short amount of time. In September, their first training session took place in the town sports hall. Redlich and Rajala thus had a team with players from all age groups and different backgrounds. Together, they had played ice hockey, volleyball, American football, basketball or ultimate frisbee before, with only three of them having past handball experience. Nevertheless they achieved progress pretty fast and stayed undefeated in the third Finnish handball division for their first few games in the league.

Establishing in the league

Now, that the first full season of the Puuman Metsästäjät has come to an end, Redlich and Rajala can look back satisfied on their performances. “We could motivate a lot of people to support our project. This resulted in us getting into the final match for promotion to the second division.” Redlich says. Only Helsingin Winchester stood between them and promotion to league two, but the Pumas lost the final game against them 33-16.

Setting up a handball team in Finland was not a straight forward experience as Redlich and Rajala quickly learned. “In Germany, handball is among the most popular team sports behind football, which is also shown in the international competitiveness of German teams.” Redlich points out. “In Finland, handball is a fringe sport. Most teams are located in south and southwest coast of Finland. There are just four different competitive leagues. Since handball has the status of fringe sport here, it is hard to find sponsors. Referees, licences and sport venues need a lot of money.”

Nowadays, the around 15 members of the Puuman Metsästäjät practice two days per week in local sport halls on the outskirts of Jyväskylä. There have been also foreigners from Germany, Poland, Portugal or Kosovo involved in the team – therefore, the language spoken among team members is English.

The third Finnish handball division, where the Puuman Metsästäjät play in, is constituted of 12 teams. After all teams have played against each other, the top tier advances to the final stages, where in the end four teams play for the winning spot that guarantees promotion to the second division. “We often played two matches in one day. Otherwise, the strain of travelling to the other teams’ venues would have been too big,” Redlich tells, about the side effects of being among the two teams in the league, which are not located in the south of the country.

The Puuman Metsästäjät playing against Porvoon Akilles 2.

Handball as a fringe sport

The kind of status handball has in Finnish sports culture can be seen when taking a look at the results of the Finnish male national team. Their only ever recorded participating in a major handball tournament was the handball World Cup of 1958 in Eastern Germany. There they managed to draw against Poland, but were defeated by Sweden and Spain and thus dropped out in the early stages of the tournament.

Nevertheless, Finland has produced a small number of players, which received wide international recognition as players and coaches. Notably two players entered the history books of handball – Björn Monnberg – the most-capped player of the Finnish national team - and Mikael Källman, who is considered as the best Finnish player in history. Both of them managed to establish themselves as important players in the widely regarded best handball league in the world - the German Handball-Bundesliga.

Traditionally, handball has a deep roots in European history. In countries like Germany, France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Russia and Spain; in Scandinavia and in the countries of former Yugoslavia, handball has been either played since its invention or was introduced at a relatively early stage. But also outside of Europe, handball has become more and more popular – particularly in Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Japan, Tunisia and Egypt.

What brings the future?

Currently, the league is in its summer break, but pre-season preparation soon begins. The league is scheduled to begin at the end of September. For the Puuman Metsästäjät, this means working on game understanding and getting new, hungry players in. “Our main goal is to make handball more familiar to people in Central Finland and thus attract potential players to attend our training and games,” Rajala says.

Redlich points out, that “if we manage to link up with the university’s sports section, we’ll automatically get a higher player intake and good results would be a welcoming side effect. We have already shown last season that we can have success, when all of us pull together and work hard.”

Redlich himself has gone back to Germany to finish his studies and thus now is not involved in the team’s development. “But if I’m approved for the Sports Psychology master’s degree at the University of Jyväskylä in 2014, I’ll have two more years to work with the team.” Redlich smiles.

Fabian Unger