For many countries it’s easy. There was bullfighting in Spain. Gaelic football in Ireland. Sumo in Japan. No matter how obscure, I always seek out seeing indigenous sports in foreign countries. I finally got my chance in the Netherlands tonight, witnessing the national grand final of the little-known korfbal.
Korfbal is a strange sport. It’s distantly related to basketball and is most similar to netball, but trivia buffs will know it for being the only mixed professional team sport in the world. Teams consist of four men and four women, split into equal groups of two who alternate between defending and attacking after every second point.
Korfbal is a non-contact sport, and men play on men and women play on women. There’s a heap of opportunities for off-side, but it all seems to kinda work.Technically it’s completely equal in terms of male and female participation, but the men dominate the scoring. For some teams, the women seem to be used as bit-players, flicking the ball around to give to the male scorers.
Paul warned me of this (knowing I would get up on my feminist high horse) and unfortunately it did happen. However, this also meant that when some of the female players would score at long range and so forth, it would really rub these tactics in the face of the opposition.
Attending the korfbal is completely different to going along to the country’s most popular sport; football. We caught the train and the metro to Ahoy in Rotterdam, the maritime-themed name of the city’s indoor sports arena. Even though about ten thousand were expected at Ahoy, they certainly didn’t travel by the metro. Adjacent to Ahoy was a carpark full of coaches, all of which had brought hordes of freakingly annoying children from all corners of the country to Rotterdam’s multicultural southern suburbs.
It was Kid City in Ahoy. None seemed interested in watching the korfbal; no, instead they were entertained by making paper planes out of the match programs and trying to kill each other with those awful blow-up sticks that a sponsor had handed out.
The kids, annoying as they were, had mainly come along with their local sports clubs. Three matches were scheduled for grand final day – the youth grand final, the third-place play-off and the grand final itself – so a number of clubs were involved. But don’t let that make you think that korfbal is amateur; not at all. Players at this level would also hold other jobs, but they’d make more than those playing for Dordrecht’s football team in the second-division Juplier League.
Football, in comparison, is extremely male (and adult) dominated in the Netherlands. The matches I attended had a lower percentage of female fans present than sports I’d previously deemed pretty blokey; cricket springs to mind first. Korfbal though is dominated by families. Football is also pretty multicultural. Korfbal’s audience – with the sport most popular in small towns and areas part of the country’s ‘Bible Belt’ – is almost completely white.
And, perhaps most importantly, here the hooligans were armed with paper planes and blow-up sticks.
All of these comparisons I’m making are trying to set a scene. Korfbal is perhaps the most friendly, good-natured sport I’ve ever seen. It’s not gentlemanly like cricket, or influenced by sombre traditions like sumo. No, there people were just nice. Opponents shook hands and chatted before breaks and time outs. Referees gave ‘warnings’ for breaking rules like travelling with the ball. And the biggest cheer of the night seemed to be for the announcement that a lost boy had been found.
I know it sounds strange, but I don’t know if I actually liked this. It was all a bit too squeaky clean. I love sports which are a bit rough around the edges. Granted, korfbal did give me one of these moments; when Koog Zaandijk won the championship by a single point, they were mobbed by their fans on the court itself. A good three hundred or so supporters ran down from their stands, and security staff waved them through.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be such a sports snob. The korfbal was entertaining; the games were close, the rules bewildering and the crowd absolutely fascinating, with me endlessly trying to analyse them.
On the other hand, maybe I’ve just been in Europe long enough to expect at least a flare rather than a bloody paper plane.