It is a little known fact that I was once star centre for the highly unsuccessful New College assault on the mixed Netball cuppers trophy back in the heady days of Trinity ‘09. We lost every match. This was clearly not due to a total lack of talent on my part (or from the rest of the boys who gave it a go), but due to the massive pressure to perform in front of a group of girls who actually knew what they were doing.
Thus, I approached Korfball with great hope of achieving redemption, via a ball and hoop (or at least hoop-shaped object – more on that later). To put the previous comment into context, Korfball was invented in 1902 by a teacher from Amsterdam who wanted to create a game where both boys and girls were able to compete on an equal footing, thus avoiding the problem of boys being generally bigger, stronger and faster, while also more prone to silly macho behaviour and having a tendency to play like idiots.
Each team is composed of four boys and four girls, with the twist that boys can only mark boys and girls can only mark girls. The other rule that differentiates it from the slightly heightist games of basketball and netball is that you can only shoot when unmarked, giving those not blessed with about eight feet of height an even playing field.
The ‘Korf’ itself comes from the Dutch for the wicker basket that was originally used as the hoop, although my slightly bizarre Christopher-Lee-and-pagan-rituals-on-remote-Scottish-island train of thought was derailed when it turned out that the thing, perched on top of a 3.5m pole, had met the 21st century head on and was now made of plastic anyway.
The general game itself is very similar to netball: no moving with the ball, no contact, and players restricted to a section of the pitch. Each team is split into two sets of boy and girl pairs and can move anywhere in one half of the pitch, the attacking four trying to score goals while the defending four unsurprisingly defend, and to avoid anyone getting too bored teams switch roles after every two goals (so attackers become defenders and vice versa).
Everything is reasonably simple and easy to pick up, so after a bit of time practising shooting and getting used to the feel of the ball (football size and weight with basketball grip) it was straight into a proper, bona fide game.
And it was here that I got caught out slightly. I come from a rugby background, where you have an opposite man but spend most of your time only vaguely aware of where he is, and hit him occasionally (at least, that’s how I passively play full-back). In Korfball, there are only two opponents in your area of the pitch you can really have anything to do with, you have to know where they are at all times, as a single second unmarked can lead to a goal, and you know that when you have possession they’ll be all over you like a rash.
It makes for a frantic game, although the nature of the two halves of the pitch does at least give you a bit of time for a breather. I also enjoyed the end switching aspect giving everyone a go in both attack and defence as opposed to the rigid roles in netball (I always thought Wing Defence seemed quite dull and a bit pointless).
Although, as the International Korfball Federation website informs me, it is a global sport with 60 member countries from all corners of the globe, the World Championship final has, since its inception in 1978, been contested exclusively between the Netherlands and Belgium. This is the mark of a niche sport, and I think it will remain as such as it struggles to break out of the shadow of basketball and netball, existing as a slightly bizarre mix of the two. This is a pity, as I feel it genuinely has something to offer as the only full team sport I can think of in which men and women can compete as equals.
If you are interested in playing Korfball please email [email protected]