Kiwi handball team on the crest of history

The New Zealand women’s handball team will make history this week, playing in their first international tournament, the Asian championships. Suzanne McFadden speaks to some of the sport’s Kiwi trailblazers, who've had to toil hard, and pay their own way, to get Japan.

Bella Anastasiou says she was bullied into playing handball. And she’s forever grateful to the ‘bully’ - her mother.

She also has to thank Mum for having the foresight to google “Sports you could be good at if you're short”.

Anastasiou was that sporty little Kiwi kid we all know, who played anything that involved a ball. She was especially good at netball and basketball, but her height, or lack of it at 1.65m, meant she probably wouldn’t get far.

That was when her mum searched the internet looking for a sport Bella could excel at her size, and discovered a trial for handball in Wellington.

“I argued with Mum: "No, I’m too tired; I can’t be bothered’. And we had this great big row in the car, because I was so determined I wouldn’t like handball. And I ended up loving it,” Anastasiou admits almost a decade later. “I hate telling my mum she was right.”

She always wears the No.15 on her New Zealand team jersey, because that’s the age she made her international handball debut – after being given special dispensation from her Aussie rivals.

Because she was under 16 when first chosen for her country back in 2011, New Zealand had to seek the approval of their opponents. At first the Australians dragged their heels giving the teenager the go-ahead, leaving her in limbo until an hour before the first test started.

“We all know what Aussie-Kiwi rivalry is like,” Anastasiou laughs. “My dad is Greek, a first generation Kiwi, so with my European surname, the Australians were really worried that New Zealand had got this hot-shot European youth player in. When in reality, I was just this fresh little bench-warmer who was competent at throwing a ball around.

“They watched me training, and laughed, and said ‘Absolutely she can play!’

“I remember being very excited to have got a grand total of seven minutes on court across both games. But even to this day, I think that experience shaped who I’ve become.”

Handball has taken Anastasiou around the world, from New Caledonia and Samoa, to Bulgaria and Germany, where she travelled with an U20 side. She’s considering returning to Europe to play in a semi-professional league.

“More New Zealanders should play it. We’d be so bloody good at this sport - it takes the best parts of netball, basketball and touch.

"There’s a physicality to it but not too much,” Anastasiou says, although she’s had a couple of concussions from the game. Which is kind of ironic, considering one of her two part-time jobs is researching concussion for New Zealand Rugby. The other is a teacher aide at her old school, Wellington Girls' College, where she also coaches the handball team she helped start back in 2011. 

“Handball is one of the those sports where you don’t have to be really tall, and jump over people. You can shoot or jump around them,” she says.

After the next fortnight in Japan, perhaps more Kiwi women will want to play.

A fighting spirit

Handball is a sport most New Zealanders might stumble across every four years, while randomly flicking through TV channels during Olympic Games coverage.

But, in a multitude of nations, the sport is huge – more than 27 million people play, according to the International Handball Federation, in almost two million teams around the world. With its roots in Germany, the game - best described as a cross between basketball and football - made its Olympic debut at the 1936 Berlin games, supposedly at the behest of Adolf Hitler.

Since the sport took hold in New Zealand in the early 1990s, handball has gradually grown to around 500 players. With school teams on the rise, the goal is to expand to 5000 players over the next five years.

Our national women’s handball team – who have yet to come up with a suitably quirky nickname – have only ever played internationals against Oceania teams, like Australia, Samoa and the Cook Islands. Those games come around only every second year.

But this week they will play in their first major tournament, having been invited to the Asian handball championships in Kumamoto, Japan.

The importance of this historic first for the sport isn’t lost on this New Zealand team, who’ve been coming together once a month for over a year to train towards the tournament.

Eoin Murray, one of the coaches of the New Zealand side, says they’re a determined bunch, who won't hold anything back.

“It’s a whole different world out there,” says Murray, who played handball for Ireland. “And it’s going to be a huge step up for them, but I know they’re strong enough to handle it. In terms of ability, they’re not quite there yet, but in terms of mental strength and determination, they’ll surprise a lot of people."

Five of the 15-strong team have never played for New Zealand before; six have played only once. They will come up against teams like Korea, Japan and China - all ranked in the world’s top 20.

“We think this is the right time to make our international bow, with a side who won’t be overawed by professional teams and cameras. They may not win, but they’re going to make it difficult for even the top teams to play their natural game," Murray says.

“One of their strengths is their really strong sense of national identity; they have fierce pride in that. As amateur sportspeople, they’ve had to work so much harder than anyone else out there. We will see their fighting spirit come out.”

The New Zealand women's handball team is about to make history at the Asian championships in Japan. Photo: supplied. 

The New Zealand players have had to fund the trip themselves – everything from their uniforms to their flights. Langi Winitana - at 35, the most experienced member of the team - says it’s been a hard graft financially.

“We’ve had to come up with almost $6000 each. It’s been really tough – especially for the young girls and students. But at the end of the day, we’d beg, steal or borrow to get to an opportunity like this,” she says.

'A mixed bag of lollies'

Winitana first played handball for New Zealand 21 years ago, making her debut at the tender age of 14.

She followed her elder sister, Marie – who played handball in Norway and then South Korea - into the sport. One of her Korean coaches was in New Zealand on holiday, and stopped by to watch the younger Winitana train.

“We were mucking around at a local gym in Lower Hutt, and [the coach] said ‘Hey, do you want to come up to South Korea for a trial?’”

Winitana was in Year 12 at school, and her parents agreed to let her go to South Korea for three months, trying out for a university team. She ended up playing there for three years.

“I came home and shared the knowledge, then went to Japan to play for the Hiroshima Maple Reds in the Japan women’s league,” she says.

“Japan and Korea are two of the strongest nations in world handball. So, going into this tournament, we’re definitely punching above our weight. But why not give it a go and represent New Zealand as best we can?”

New Zealand has developed its own unique style of handball, which Winitana hopes could initially have their opposition guessing. The Europeans are renowned for playing a strong, explosive type of handball, and the Asian nations play a very fast and technical game, orientated around teamwork.

“We’re a mixed bag of lollies,” says Winitana, defining the New Zealand style. “Sprinters and powerhouses all mixed together.”

Winitana has been instrumental in growing handball in the Wellington region - setting up the Valley Hunters club in Lower Hutt, winner of the Wellington women’s league this year, and coaching college teams.

“I’m trying to carve a pathway for the next generation. There are so many opportunities for New Zealand’s young female athletes now to go and play handball overseas,” she says.

Her daughter now plays at high school, and has urged her Winitana to finally give up the game. She's still resisting. 

“My daughter's been dragged to every training since she was born, so she knows how much the sport means to me,” she says. “I still get excited going into training camps. I still have that passion for the game.

“And I had to be there [in Japan] - it’s part of New Zealand handball history.”

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