Referee row lifts handball’s appeal


Team handball, the figurative water boy of sports, is suddenly in the game and earning the roaring approval of fans in Japan.

TV shows have devoted countless hours to it, both in game coverage and as a topic of discussion; tickets to recent matches in Tokyo have sold out in minutes. Dozens of people line up overnight outside stadiums for the matches.

The turnaround is thanks to a remedy to a problem that has long plagued the Japanese national teams: allegedly unfair judges that Japan claims have favored teams from the Middle East.

But ever since Tokyo persuaded the International Handball Federation in December to replay the Asian Qualification Tournaments for the 2008 Olympic Games with referees directly dispatched by the IHF, Japanese audiences have responded with enthusiastic support for both their men’s and women’s teams.

Enthusiasm increased after the Asian Handball Federation, led by a Kuwaiti prince, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Sabah, boycotted the replay. Adding to the drama, at a news conference the prince implied he had the power to derail Tokyo’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

The battle between the AHF and IHF is perfect fodder for Japanese TV gossip shows, which have repeatedly aired video footage of the prince making the threat.

On Jan. 25, 6,000 tickets to a Japan-South Korea men’s game in Tokyo sold out in 40 minutes and the Japan Handball Association was flooded with inquiries from people eager to get into the game.

“The average audience of a Japan Handball League game numbers around 700. . . . We feel as if we are dreaming,” said Makoto Kaneko, director general of the Japan Handball Association. “The change is so sudden it has left us baffled.”

Comparatively few people play team handball, which is similar to soccer except that the ball is thrown or hit with the hands rather than kicked. According to the association, there are only around 85,000 registered players across the country, one-tenth the number of volleyball players.

Over the past decade, handball’s popularity has dropped off to the point where the number of Japan Handball League teams has been halved to 15 from its peak in 1998.

“Nowadays, not many students play handball in high school. I don’t know the reason, but it is probably because you need (expensive) goals and not many schools have them,” said Kazuyuki Hashiguchi, who runs the Internet-based shop Takaspo, which carries handball gear, including uniforms and shoes.

Hashiguchi and many others in the handball world have high hopes that the recent surge in popularity and flood of media coverage will reinvigorate the sport and the industries that support it.

But at the same time they fear this media-fueled boom is a short-lived phenomenon.

Hashiguchi said he has yet to see handball-related sales increase at his Internet shop, and he suspects the sport’s sudden popularity as a spectator sport has not translated into more handball players in Japan.

This view is shared by Yoshihiro Uehara, who manages Hummel-brand sporting goods, a popular European brand of handball gear, for Osaka-based SSK Corp.

Uehara said the recent obsession with handball has not boosted sales of the firm’s products so far.

“I wish (the recent boom) will be one factor to increase handball players, but our sales have not been affected yet,” Uehara said.

This is an occasional series focusing on hot topics, people, events and trends in today’s Japan.