(LifeWire) - Team handball might seem exotic to the uninitiated. Even if you don't reside in one of its scattered hotbeds, though, you might find that you know it better than you thought you did after sampling a game or two. That's because handball shares some of its principles, rules and terminology with ball-and-goal games you probably know well, such as basketball, soccer, rugby and lacrosse.
An Olympic handball court is roughly the size of a basketball court. It measures 40 meters long by 20 meters wide (131 feet by 66 feet) and is bisected by a center line. There are goals on either end of the court, each 2 meters high and 3 meters wide (7 feet by 10 feet). Near the goals are five markings: the goal line between the goalposts, a goalkeeper restraining line, the goal-area line that's 6 meters from the goal, the 7-meter line, and at 9 meters, the free-throw line. The goal-area line and the free-throw line appear as concentric arcs encircling the goal, one solid and the other broken.
A handball game at the Olympics consists of two 30-minute halves with a halftime break lasting 10 minutes. Each team gets a single timeout per half. If the score is tied at the end of regulation play, an overtime period consisting of two five-minute halves is played. There are no timeouts in overtime. If the score remains tied after the first overtime, a five-minute break is taken before playing a second overtime period. After that, a soccer-style shootout is held in which each team chooses five players who then alternate shots from the 7-meter line. If there's still no winner, the shootout continues until one team has more goals than the other and both have taken an equal number of shots.
A goal is worth one point. Court players have free rein to attack, but they must watch their step when they approach the net. The goal area is considered the goalkeeper's domain. Court players are usually not allowed to set foot inside, but they are allowed to leap toward the net from outside the goal area, provided they release the ball before landing. Because game play tends to be fast-paced and freewheeling, handball games are generally high-scoring.
Handball features teams of seven consisting of six court players and a goalkeeper. Court players advance the ball the same way basketball players do - by dribbling and passing - but handball's rules for maintaining possession are more liberal than those in basketball. For instance, handball players can take up to three steps between dribbles and are allowed to use both hands to maintain possession. They can also use their arms, head, torso, thighs and knees to control the ball. No player with a ball may stand stationary for more than three seconds at a time.
Contact between players is allowed in handball, but only certain kinds of contact. When players step out of line, game officials award free throws and 7-meter shots. The free throw in handball resets game play after a stoppage like an inbounds pass in basketball, but it is generally taken from the spot where the foul occurred.
A 7-meter throw is like a penalty kick in soccer. It is attempted from the 7-meter line and is awarded when officials rule that an interruption in play has disrupted a scoring opportunity. The International Handball Federation rulebook is very specific on this topic - specifying, for example, what would happen if an electrical failure were to break up a scoring chance. (A 7-meter shot would be awarded once the lights come back on, in case you're wondering.)
If a player commits repeated fouls or a particular foul is deemed unsportsmanlike, officials can remove the offending player for two minutes or disqualify him or her for the rest of the game. The offending player cannot be replaced during a two-minute penalty; the offending team must play shorthanded. Teams can, however, substitute another player for one that's disqualified once the two-minute penalty has elapsed.
What's considered out of line? Players are not allowed to pull the ball out of an opponent's hands, nor can they hold, push or charge into an opponent. Defensive players are permitted to use their torsos to impede an opponent, but they are not permitted to use their arms, hands or legs.
The most serious infraction in handball is an "assault," which the IHF rulebook defines as a "forceful and deliberate attack against the body of another person." The other person could be anybody - player, referee, coach or even spectator - and the attack does not necessarily have to involve violent force. Spitting, for instance, is considered an assault and is punishable by exclusion. An excluded player must leave the bench, and his or her team must play the remainder of the game shorthanded.
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