A nation that plays the ball

Unknown in many parts of the world, but ubiquitous in Denmark. During the winter season, the Danish national sport is handball

By Tina Ravn

Photo: Handball

Suddenly the sports arena was very quiet.

After a close, thrilling match and two periods of extra time, the score between Denmark and South Korea in the handball final at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens was still level at 34-34. The match then had to be decided by a penalty shootout. Each team had five shots at goal to decide who would win gold in the month-long tournament.

The Danish goalkeeper was Karin Mortensen. Even seven years later, the greatest moment of her career is still fresh in her mind:

“I could see the Danish Queen and the Prince consort out of the corner of my eye,” she says, gesticulating with both hands diagonally up and to the right. In Karin Mortensen’s apartment where she is sitting today, there is only her white ceiling to be seen.

“Behind me, there was a group of Danish sailors who had been shouting and cheering wildly throughout the match. Then I focused on the small leather ball and the opponent in front of me,” she says.

The South Korean player shoots – and the first ball whizzes past Karin Mortensen into the net.

The Danish team also scores on their first shot, so the intensity is unchanged when the Danish goalkeeper defends her goal against the second shot.

It is kept out of the net by Karin Mortensen’s right foot. The opposing team’s next shot doesn’t find the net either, being blocked by the goalkeeper’s left knee. Since the Danish team has scored on each of their attempts, Denmark wins the Olympic gold medal.

“We threw ourselves into a big pile on the floor and our coach, who had left the field because he couldn’t bear the excitement, came running in. It was pure exultation,” says Karin Mortensen.

Exclamation point Handball

Handball was invented in Denmark at the turn of the last century.

The game is played on a 20x40 metre court with a goal at each end. The teams consist of seven players – one goalkeeper and six field players – who dribble and throw the ball to each other and try to get past the opposing team’s defence. After receiving the ball, players can take up to three steps without dribbling. Handball is a contact sport, but if tackling is too violent, the referee can give a suspension to the player, or a penalty throw, or both.

A handball match lasts 60 minutes, and it is not uncommon for each team to score more than 30 goals before the final whistle in 2011, the number of handball players in Denmark is 119,000 – 58,000 male and 61,000 female Denmark has won 74 sets of medals at the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships. The Danish women’s handball team won gold at the Olympic Games three times in succession in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Most recently, the Danish men’s handball team won silver at the 2011 World Championships.

Photo: Karin Mortensen
Karin Mortensen is the goalkeeper for the Danish women’s national team and has to fend off the opposing team’s shots – which can have speeds of up to 110 kph (70 mph). “You have to be a bit unusual to be a goalkeeper,” she says.
Photos: Scanpix

Photo: Read description below
Denmark’s Katrine Fruelund breaks through the South Korean defence.

A team sport for the nation

The cheering was not confined to the sports arena in Athens on that Sunday in August 2004. In addition to the thousands of fans who had travelled to Greece, there were also 1.7 million people watching the match on TV in Denmark. This is not unusual – in January 2011 some 3.2 million Danes – corresponding to 60 percent of the population – watched the men’s handball World Championship from the nation’s sofas. There are few countries in the world where handball is as popular as it is in Denmark.

The game – involving two teams of seven players, plus a lot of speed, tactical adroitness and interplay – has over the years attracted Danes of all ages to sit glued to the TV on sunny Sundays, cheering exuberantly and, if it gets too tense to watch, going out to walk the dog. And unlike football, handball is equally popular with both sexes.

According to Thomas Ladegaard, who has written a book about Danish handball, it is because team sports appeal to Danes:

“Handball is a team sport, because a player cannot succeed alone. The idea of the community where different social classes play together has deep roots in Denmark,” he says.


It was in Denmark that handball took its first tiny steps. Over 100 years ago, two school teachers started to play a handball-like game with their pupils, and when they later lived in the same area, they got to know each other. The first match ended 27-0.

The new game quickly spread to Denmark’s neighbouring countries, and since then handball has developed into a game which requires players with the jumping power from volleyball, the physical strength from wrestling, the tactics from American football, the speed from athletics, and most importantly, the ability to play together.

It was the collaboration on and off the field which originally attracted Karin Mortensen to handball. And it still does.

“The teamwork you have is unique, and that is a large part of the sport. The players have to be able to function together socially, before they can play well on the field,” she says. She started playing in her local club when she was 5 years old, because so did all her girlfriends in the village. So a large part of Karin Mortensen’s childhood took place on a lawn by her school where she and her girlfriends got together to play after the last lesson, and also in various sports halls around the country where competitions were held during holidays.

“I looked forward to every match as if it was christmas eve. The whole team had a nice time together, and before the matches started, we ran around with bags of sweets and peeped at the other teams. The first prize was always awful training suits in pastel shades, and we won lots of them,” she says.

Karin Mortensen’s path went from sports college to unpaid league player, and then to her first professional contract. Ten years ago she was training with her team when the coach suddenly handed a phone to her and said that the national coach was on the other end of the line.

“I was glad I was sitting down,” she says with a smile and continues:

“I could only reply yes, no and certainly, but I had been chosen for the national team.”

And this was how Karin Mortensen was able to replace the pastel shade training suits with one in red and white.

Photo: Read description below
Karin Mortensen (in green) has played for the Danish women’s national handball team since 2000. “During the national anthem I still get goosebumps when I hear the spectators sing. It makes me proud to the core,” she says. Photo: Scanpix

Success created in the provinces

In recent decades in Denmark, both the men’s and women’s national handball teams have been very successful and have won a large number of medals.

Behind the achievement are hundreds of small local handball clubs nationwide, many of which are located in Denmark’s western peninsula, Jutland. Clubs based in small towns in the country’s provinces have quite unusually in many cases achieved better results than clubs in for example Copenhagen.

There are several reasons for this, one being the presence of a large number of passionate locals who enable the small clubs to survive through support funding and voluntary work. In addition, life in small towns has for many years been concentrated around the local sports hall. As part of political structural reform in the 1970s, small municipalities were merged into larger units. As a result, many villages built a landmark to differentiate themselves from the others in the new larger municipalities. Many of these landmarks were sports halls where young people had the chance to exercise their talent.

“As long as there is a boy in a Jutland sports hall practising swerve balls, Danish handball is alive and well,” says Thomas Ladegaard.

When Karin Mortensen started playing in her childhood club, she didn’t imagine that handball would fill most of her life. Nonetheless she has since then spent countless hours practising and travelling by bus to matches. In addition to her amazing Olympic gold medal from 2004 – which lies in a cupboard in her living room – she has won another Olympic gold medal, a European Championship gold medal, gold in an international club tournament and several Danish Championships.

“And two 4th places at the World Championships,” she says with a vexed smile.

The next target is the Olympic Games in London in 2012, but after that she does not know what will happen. Even after many years, the daily practice with her club team is still a high point.

“I like being around people. You get exercise, talk about the world situation and get cheerful. The atmosphere of the team I am playing with will probably also have great importance for when I end my career,” she says and continues:

“If the teamwork is not good, it is nothing like as much fun.”

Getting everybody into the game

One Olympic gold medal, one World Championship gold medal, two World Championship silver medals, two World Championship bronze medals, three European Championship gold medals and one European Championship bronze medal.

Ulrik Wilbek’s achievements are so many that the medals are too heavy to carry all at the same time. As the national coach of first the women’s team and now the men’s team, he has gone from one success to the next, and the small man with the red cheeks and the fiery-tempered appearance during matches, has become a national treasure.

“Being the national coach is not a job to me. Even if I won 100 million kroner, I would still do the same thing. It suits my needs to work with team sports,” he says.

He puts his success down to his interest in people.

“It is always difficult to give an answer when it concerns oneself.

But I think it is because I am good at finding the players’ talents and exploiting them. I like getting the best out of people,” he says.

Empathy can be a weakness

Photo: Ulrik Wilbek
“Hi Ulrik!” It is not often that Ulrik Wilbek can walk unnoticed down a street. But that is understandable when you have brought home several international Championships to the handball-loving Danes. Photo: Scanpix

Ulrik Wilbek is fascinated by what makes people behave as they do. Together with an interest in personal profiles, this helps him to find each player’s core competences and discover the best way in which the team can benefit from them. This results in a Danish team which does not field the same seven players throughout a match. Instead most of the squad are in action during the matches – all depending on what the situation requires.

”I use all my players,” he says.

Empathy with other people is however not unconditionally positive.

“It can be a weakness. In the past I had real difficulty taking someone off the team – for example to inform a player that the person in question was not going to the Olympic Games,” he says.

The Danes’ relationship to Ulrik Wilbek is on the other hand positive. In the Danish provincial town of Viborg where Ulrik Wilbek lives – and where there are more sports halls than in the capital Copenhagen – the local citizens are used to seeing him. But when he is in the capital, he attracts attention.

“Everybody greets me and says ´Hi Ulrik´, and there are also many who come over and give me their hand and say: “Thank you for all the good experiences over the years’. That is nice,” he says.

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