The basic sanction to an infraction (foul, double dribble, etc.) in handball is a “free throw.” (Note: A “free throw” in handball is not analogous to a “free throw” in basketball. Rather it is analogous to a “free kick” in soccer.) When an infraction occurs the referee blows the whistle once and signals with 1 arm towards the goal of the team that has been awarded a free throw. A player then gathers the ball and stands where the infraction occurred and throws it to a team mate. Or, alternatively the player can also try to score directly on goal.
Defensive players are required to stay 3 meters from the player throwing throwing the ball. If a foul is committed by a defensive player within the 9 meter area, the free throw takes place at the point of the 9 meter line closest to the place of the infraction. Additionally, players on offense are required to exit the area between the 6 and 9 meter lines and start play beyond the 9 meter line.
For most infractions the clock does not stop and the team awarded the free throw can immediately start play with a throw in. However, if the infraction also resulted in a yellow card or a 2 minute suspension the clock is stopped and throw in can only be started after the referee whistles to start the clock.
If at the end of a half a free throw is called, but the the throw in does not occur before time has expired the team awarded the free throw can still take one last shot on goal with no time remaining. One offensive player then takes the shot typically over a defensive wall 3 meters away.
Much like in ice hockey, the players (including the goalie) are free to substitute on and off during the play always entering and exiting the court from the area near the half court line designated for substitutions. The new player cannot come on the court, however, until the departing player has exited the court entirely. Coming in too soon results in a 2 minute suspension. Many teams like to substitute 1 or 2 players for offensive/defensive purposes. These substitution patterns can easily be accomplished from defense to offense as the team on offense can slow play up a bit to make the substitution. The switch from offense to defense, however, cannot always be made because the time required for substituting could result in the offense having a man advantage.
A defensive player may obstruct his opponent by using his body and/or arms. Strictly speaking, he is not allowed to strike, grab or tackle the opponent. However, as the usual penalty for frontal tackling or grabbing is just a free throw, defenders regularly try to stop the attacker by – blocking/grabbing the attackers ball handling arm with one arm/hand while – putting the other hand on the attackers hip/back and – pulling the attacker against his own chest. In order to keep the game flowing (thereby opening up holes in the defense) the attacker will try to evade this. For the same reason, referees usually do not interfere as long as the attacker is still able to pass the ball safely along to a teammate.
For reference a handball is slightly smaller than a volleyball. However, a handball is heavier and is textured for easier gripping. Sometimes a cantaloupe is also used as a reference point for describing the size and weight of the ball.
A goal worth one point is awarded to the offensive team each time the entire ball crosses their opponent’s goal area. There is no equivalent to a 3 point goal in basketball. All goals are worth just 1 point.
Occasionally, a shot attempt results in the goal keeper stopping the ball at or near the imaginary plane of the goal area. This can be a very challenging call to make and a special goal camera is used at major competitions.
When players shoot the ball it is advantageous to swing one’s arm toward the center of the 6 meter arc as it is a more natural arm motion and provides a better shot angle. As a result, right handed players are more effective on the left side of the court and left handed players are more effective on the right side of the court. This handicap is most pronounced with respect to wing players, as it can be very difficult to score on the wing with the “wrong arm.” For a perspective on how difficult, imagine this right wing taking the same shot right right handed.
A regulation handball match consists of two 30 minute halves separated by a 10 or 15 minute half time. The clock runs continuously unless a timeout is called or a player is injured. Additionally, at the end of the match, the referees will often call timeout after a foul to prevent excessive stalling by the team with the lead.
In terms of “real time” elapsed a typical handball match will last around 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Most often teams set up with the offensive positions depicted in the chart above. Here are a few notes on each position:
Left Wing/Right Wing: Wing players are typically quicker players that, as the name suggests, spend the bulk of their time on offense as the extreme end of the court. Often as plays develop the defense commits toward the center leaving the wing player with a relatively open shot at the less desirable wing angle. Wings are also often the players who are out first on the fast break.
Left Back: This position typically is the strongest shooter on the team and is usually a tall player who can shoot over the defense at 9 to 10 meters.
Center Back: The center back position is somewhat similar to the point guard position in basketball in that this player is typically the best passer setting up the Left Back, Right back and Pivot players for good shots.
Right Back: This position is essentially the mirror image of the left back position. However, since the position is more effectively played with a left handed player not all teams have a right back that is as effective as their left back. Some teams lacking an effective left handed player will play this position with a right handed player or perhaps with a left handed player that is shorter and less capable then the left back of big shots from a distance.
Pivot: This player plays with his back to the goal along the 6 meter circle. (Note: This position is also referred to as a circle runner or line player.) This is a physically tough position as the circle runner tries to muscle in between the defenders, who often line up on the 6m line with their backs to their own goal. The pivot tries to block defenders and create spaces between them thereby opening up shooting lanes for the offense. If the defender then moves to block the attacking back, passing lanes to the unmarked pivot open up.