Written by Kurt Aquilina
Just like Parkour in episode 3 of the Maltese Sportsman series, handball is one of the newer sports in Malta. The Malta Handball Association (MHA) has only been around since 1995 and so, compared to other countries, the sport is still in its development. In general, the sport consists of seven players on each team using the hands to try and score in the opponent’s goal. Handball in Malta has come a long way since its start. Nowadays, the Handball League consists of two divisions involving five different clubs, each having their own representatives in both divisions.
To find out what it means to play handball in Malta, I met up with ‘Kavallieri RS2’ goalkeeper, Brian Agius who has been playing the sport for over six years now. He recounted how he was persuaded to start playing by some of his class mates and how he has never looked back.
Brian explained how the sport is becoming associated with youths in Malta. He mentioned that even as a young player himself, he is one of the oldest on the team. Of course, this varies from one club to another. However, according to the record amount of player registrations this season, the age of these athletes is mostly very young. For Agius, this is helpful for the players as it brings them together through what they consider as their priorities.
He remarked that in the Maltese league, players who are under the age of 19 are allowed to play in both the first and second division. However, this stops when a player becomes over this age. In this case one can only play in one particular division.
We discussed the level of handball in Malta where Agius made it clear immediately that because the sport is semi-professional, this is a great disadvantage when playing against foreign professional teams. Even the players’ stature is something which distances the Maltese game from that of other countries. In European competitions such as the ‘EHF Champions League’, the average height of a player is that of over two metres (6ft5). Being under that, means that a player is at a disadvantage. In spite of this, Agius said that “Having good speed while being shorter, it can become an advantage for you.”
Despite having many commitments outside of the sport, Agius and his team mates train three times a week at the main handball sports hall situated within the University of Malta. As far as match days go, Agius spends his pre-match weekdays looking into what the coaches expect from him in order to improve and prepare for the coming match. Handball teams generally play once every two weekends. Agius described how the players meet around one hour before the match to get the team talk and from then on it becomes the only thing on the team’s mind.
Agius emphasised his main focus is usually on keeping a good physique but most of all, great flexibility. As a goalkeeper, shots come at him from all over the pitch and with a smaller sized ball, “The larger the reach, the more saves you make”. According to him, experience also plays a vital part in determining the path of the ball.
Exposure-wise, most handball clubs promote handball in many areas, both online and offline. They sometimes visit schools in order to promote the sport. This is one of the main causes for the impressive statistic regarding youths joining the sport mentioned above. Even with the influx of foreigners coming to Malta for work purposes, many people still don’t know about the existence of handball in Malta and so these clubs make an extra effort to advertise it to them. Agius mentioned that fortunately the sport is gradually increasing its presence on local television and newspapers.
He admits that despite the great progress the sport is making, there is still a lot of room for more. Primarily, the thing which needs to change the most is the way that referees are chosen to officiate matches. He said that the referee system in Maltese handball involves all handball clubs appointing three or four referees to officiate other matches in which the club takes no part. From a player’s standpoint, this might make the game seem less objective. He said that ideally, this would change and referees were to be external, separate to the clubs involved in the league.
The investment in more sports halls would also lead to a better growth for the sport. He criticised the level of attendance for the sport. Agius explained that, “Usually the people in the stands are other players who are part of the club, maybe a number of parents but never new people who think of watching another sport.” He blames this on the lack of exposure the game has at the moment and how local media focuses more on other sports which already follow a greater level of following.
Lack of resources is probably the key drawback to handball in Malta. However, this does not stop the MHA in forming a pretty good national team which does quite well considering all of what has been mentioned above. This potential gives teams and players hope and this shows in the level of investment which the clubs make.
Agius pointed out how, because of the small number of clubs in the league, most of them often have more than one team in a division. He gave the example of Kavallieri which has its first division side as well as two teams in the second division: ETE which are currently occupying the top spot in the league, and Kavallieri RS2 which are in second place. ETE have a relatively older age average than Kavallieri RS2, however this does not stop them from dominating the league and staying up top in the table.
Handball is a sport which is rising as its years go by. The Maltese national team has made it to the 13th place in the latest International Handball Federation ‘Emerging Nations Championship’ in 2017 and even 8th place back in 2015. All of this progress has been all thanks to players like Brian Agius who gives it his all so that handball in Malta gets the recognition it deserves.