Korfball: scoring with the opposite sex
March 3, 2008 2 Comments
This is the second in a series of articles written by US student Amrit Dhir as he explores those sports traditions that are foreign to his home culture, yet thrive in Maastricht.
“Do you shower together too?”
It is a common facetious remark targeted at korfball players from fellow athletes. “I always tell them that we do and lead them on,” says Erik Leeuwij, a member of MSKV De Hippo’s, Maastricht’s korfball association.
Korfball (korfbal in Dutch) is a mixed-gender sport played between two teams, each represented on the court by four male players and four female players. In 1901, Nico Broekhuysen, a schoolmaster in Amsterdam, inspired by his exposure to ringböll on a study trip to Sweden, deliberately designed the new game so that male and female schoolchildren could play together.
As the International Korfball Federation (IKF) boasts, “Korfball is the world’s only true mixed team sport with the rules laid down so that both men and women have equal opportunities.” One of these rules, and the answer to one of the first questions posed by those unfamiliar with the sport, is that men may only defend men and women may only defend women.
Watch the IKF promotional video:
A Dutch sport
While the IKF also points out that the game is played on five continents, perhaps more so than any other sport, Korfball is quintessentially Dutch. In every year of the Korfball World Championship since its inaugural tournament in 1978, the Netherlands has beaten Belgium in the finals. The one exception is 1991, when Belgium beat the Netherlands.
Indeed, the name itself is derived from the Dutch word for basket: korf. From an American point of view, the game is strikingly similar to basketball, with a number of key differences.
To begin with, there is no dribbling; the ball, which most closely resembles a soccer ball, is moved down the court primarily through passing.
Another difference is that the basket stands at 3.5 meters, about half a meter higher than a basketball rim, and has no backboard; it is positioned at two-thirds the distance from the halfcourt line to the end line of each side of the court, allowing players to shoot from what would be considered in basketball as behind the basket.
In addition, the teams are split into two groups, each confined to their half of the court, or zone. Thus, one group of each team is responsible for offense and the other for defense. After two goals, the groups switch roles.
Another key distinction is that in korfball, much unlike basketball, a player may not shoot the ball while defended. How does one determine if a player is defended? There are three criteria:
1) the defender is within arm’s length of the player;
2) the defender is between the player and the basket;
3) the defender is actively trying to block the ball. This final criterion is naturally the trickiest to interpret, but keeping hands up and maintaining eye contact upon the player whom one is defending is generally accepted as adequate defense.
If one of these criteria is not met, the player is free to shoot the ball.
Then there is the issue of how to shoot. Someone better acquainted with basketball (and even the author of this article, who has intentionally limited his contact with a basketball to fewer than a dozen times since high school and was always a poor, if not pathetic, player) requires some practice to unlearn the loose-wristed backspin throw. In korfball, the ball is thrown with near equal pressure and balance from both hands and has little or no spin.
Finally, korfball may be played indoors or outdoors, on a court or on a field of grass or turf or even on a sandy beach. When played outdoors, the game is typically split up into two 35-minute halves; played inside, however, the halves are shortened 30 minutes each, partially because, as player Jelmer Bennink explains, “inside is more intensive and faster because the court is smaller.”
The Maastricht Hippo’s
All of the Hippo’s players are students, most studying at Maastricht University. Bennink, the association’s primary de facto trainer as the group searches for an official one, studies Sports Education in Sittard. Although they no longer attend the practices on Tuesday evenings, former Hippo’s members stay involved with the organization. As association secretary Lisanne Pols explains: “The ex-Hippos never practice. They just form a team for the tournament and play for fun.”
The association gives an illustrative explanation for the root of its name on its website; translated from Dutch, it reads: “The name is derived from hippopotamus. And you are not mistaken, that while the hippo [sits] there quietly and looks harmless, every year in Africa there are more human victims of hippos than of any other animal.” The paragraph ends with a disclaimer: “To this I would add that the name is not in any way related to the physical structure of our ladies.”
Perhaps rather appropriately, every member of Hippo’s is Dutch. However, the athletes are welcoming of new players and happy to conduct part of the practice in English, as they did recently for this reporter; the strong team spirit was apparent as the improving of one another’s English instructions and explanations became a collaborative, grammatical effort. This year, Hippo’s has 28 members, only six of which are men (the careful reader will note that this means that some Hippo’s women must play as men during practice).
Maastricht hosts a korfball tournament in November, but the Hippo’s members acknowledge that it is perhaps the least attended in the Netherlands. The biggest tournament, which has had over 30 teams participate, is in Eindhoven, with teams representing countries such as Germany, Hungary, Poland, and England. Irmin Auwerda comments: “The English totally suck. Hungary and Poland are quite okay. Actually, Hungary won the Eindhoven tournament a couple years ago.”
The weak attendance at the Maastricht tournament cannot solely be attributed to the city’s geographic location in the very south of the Netherlands. It is also indicative of the regional divisions and subtleties of Dutch culture. Asked where korfball is most popular, Pols responds, “Anywhere but here.” Auwerda adds: “Maastricht has only one club, which has only three teams. Compare that to other cities, [which have] several clubs with maybe 20 teams.”
A mixed-gender sport
At these tournaments, the games are condensed to fifteen minutes with no half-time break. As a result, the scores are lower than those of typical games, in which both teams generally score in the twenties or teens. However, korfball scores can certainly be much higher; for example, in 2007 Korfball World Championship, the Netherlands beat China 42-10.
The great majority of the Hippo’s players say they started learning to play when they were very young, either at home with their families or in elementary school. The one exception is Lionne de Winter, who started playing around the age of ten: “I’m the only one in my family that plays.”
When asked about a reason for de Winter’s atypically late exposure, the team’s consensus points to the fact that she is from Zeeland. Clearly, even within the Netherlands, korfball’s appeal and popularity differs regionally. In fact, even the nature and rules of the sport may be different from province to province.
“In Brabant, there is a lot of female korfball,” says Carlie van den Borne, whose home team, Rosolo, won the junior national champions in 2007. “At home I played female korfball. And here, this is the first time I play with guys too. It’s a whole new game.”
The general sentiment of the other Hippo’s members is distinctively negative regarding female korfball. Many feel that the mixed-gender element is necessarily definitive of the game itself.
When it comes to the subject of professional korfball, the Hippo’s have a wide range of opinions. “You never see korfball on television – only the World Championship,” notes Pols. That does not bother Bennink one bit: “I don’t enjoy watching korfball. I only enjoy playing.”
A 24-second shot clock has recently been introduced in professional games, and players are torn on the issue. With a shot clock, a team must take a shot within 24 seconds or else they lose possession; as soon as the ball touches the basket (it need not go in), the shot clock is reset, and the team has another 24 seconds. Leeuwij explains: “They’re trying to make the sport more attractive, faster. People like to watch it more. And it comes more on television. And maybe television makes it more popular.” But, he adds, “With the shot clock, it is going to look more like basketball. And that’s not how I want to play.”
Auwerda chimes in: “At the top level, it is a good change. The game became a lot faster, and they play at such a high level. If they can’t create a chance within 24 seconds then they’re just procrastinating.”
But Bennink presents much stronger reservations: “I grew up with no shot clock. Now you shoot for the rebound and not to score. It changes the tactic…. I’m a sportive guy. You must shoot to score.”
Despite disapproval from some players, professional korfball seems to be intent on establishing a wider presence and appeal. “It’s becoming more international. Moving beyond just us and Belgium,” notes van de Borne.
Whether the sport will successfully transcend boundaries is a subject of speculation, but it is largely irrelevant to the Hippo’s weekly meetings. After practice, the players head for the showers before a drink and social hour in the bar downstairs. As to whether or not the men and women shower together, this writer will keep his readership guessing.
By Amrit Dhir
Amrit Dhir is pursuing a masters in Media Culture at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Originally from Los Angeles, he received his bachelors degree in International Studies from Emory University in Atlanta.
Photographs: Amrit Dhir and De Hippo’s website
More information: Maastricht’s korfball association MSKV De Hippo’s
Related article: Playing handball in Maastricht