Singing, sewing and trying to find a seat in the stands; beach handball proved to be one of the most popular sports at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018.
When the Dutch women’s beach handball team members arrived at the Parque Sarmiento on the final day to contest the bronze medal match, they suddenly started to sing loudly in front of the colourful crowd going to the park. “We sing when we are going to a match,” Dutch team coach Harald Mulder explained. It started when we were walking from our hotel, when we decided to sing our national anthem, 'Het Wilhelmus'. It’s like going off to war.”
This spirit of camaraderie was apparent throughout the six days of competition in this discipline making its first appearance at the Youth Olympic Games. On the eve of the tournament, the Argentinian players even designed and sewed their own sky blue and white headbands. “We first did this for the World Cup last year,” explained Gisella Bonomi “We make them all. I think it’s our thing; it represents us.”
There was a fantastic atmosphere for the competition, which saw 1,300 spectators gathered around the central arena right from the start. Beach handball is played on a rectangle of sand measuring 27 by 12 metres. The matches are between two teams of four players including a goalkeeper, who contest 20-minute games split into two 10-minute periods. Lots of goals are scored, sometimes from acrobatic positions in the air: this kind of goal earns two points, and the same is true if the goalkeeper scores. If each team wins a set, the winner is decided by a shootout.
The Argentine girls lost only one first-round match when qualifying for the second round, after which the best four teams moved on to the semi-finals: Argentina, Croatia, Hungary and the Netherlands. At the same time, the Argentine men’s team benefited from the support of an enthusiastic home crowd and, together with Croatia, Spain and Portugal, they also got through to the last four.
“Such a crowd gives us strength. It’s fantastic to win and give the people a victory,” said Julián Santos, who plays on the left wing of the team.
In the women’s semi-finals, for which hundreds of spectators without seats wandered around the park hoping for a brief glimpse of the action, Argentina beat Hungary in the tiebreaker, while Croatia defeated the Netherlands 2-0. This result by the Croatian girls enabled them to go one better than their male counterparts, who were beaten 2-1 by Spain. In the other men’s semi-final, Portugal beat Argentina by the same score.
“This was the first time we did better than the boys,” observed Croatian goalkeeper Petra Lovrencevic. “There’s some rivalry between the boys and the girls, but we are also good team mates: we support them and they support us.” But that was not enough: in the final, Argentina beat Croatia 2-0 (14-10 in the first period, 18-16 in the second), cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd and thanks to an excellent performance by Gisella Bonomi.
In the men’s final, the Spaniards found it much tougher to beat the Portuguese. As the match ended with one set each (19-14 to Spain and then 18-16 to Portugal), the outcome was decided by a dramatic shootout dominated by Spain, which therefore won with a score of 2-1.
All the players in this competition had a lot of stories to tell afterwards! “This is hugely important for me,” Rebeka Benzsay declared after the Hungarian team’s 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the women’s bronze medal match. “I think that everyone playing this sport here is dreaming of one day being able to take part in the Olympic Games.
“We are still singing. Not always very well, but we’re singing. That makes us happy and helps us believe that we can do absolutely anything.” What looks certain is that, after their successful start at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, the beach handball players will continue on a high note for some time to come.