There are seven players on the court for each team at the same time in a game of handball. These seven players arrange themselves in certain positions to maximize scoring chances on offense and to successfully defend their own goal from the opposing team.
Although most players have different roles for offense and defense, the basic naming scheme for handball players follows their offensive roles:
There are more names for positions used strictly in defensive setups as well:
These positions designate the area on the court where they line up relative to the center of defense. For example, the "far right" defender will be near the sideline guarding the offensive team's left wing, while the "back center" defender initially marks the center forward in the middle of a formation.
In handball, the center back is usually the most experienced player on the court. The play of the center back is integral to the success of the team as a whole. The center back is often referred to as the "playmaker" of the offense. This position is similar to the role of a point guard in basketball; setting up the offensive and defensive formations and tactics on each possession. The center back is the main ball handler on offense and anchor of the defense on the other end of the court.
One of the greatest handball players of all-time, Frenchman Nikola Karabatic, plays center back for the French National Team and Paris Saint-Germain. Although the best player is not necessarily the center back, it is the position most likely to have the team's most skilled player.
There are 14 players on a handball court at once-seven for each team. Each player does have a goalkeeper, though, that almost always stays in their own goal. This means there are usually 13 players on one end of the court at a time-with six attacking players and seven defending. Each team is allowed a maximum of seven substitute players on their bench. These substitutes are allowed to enter and leave the court at their leisure, but the player they are replacing must leave the court before the substitute can participate in a play.
The non-goalkeeping players are known as "field players." Field players are not allowed to use their feet to touch the ball, while a goalkeeper can use any part of their body to make a save. Goalkeepers are the only players allowed to be inside the goal perimeter area while touching the ball. Goalkeepers have to wear different colored uniforms, like goalkeepers in soccer, but unlike soccer they may be substituted for field players if the offense wants more attacking players.
There are seven basic positions in handball, with extra names for the roles of defenders. The only position that doesn't change names is the goalkeeper, who is almost always in their own goal perimeter area. These seven basic positions are goalkeeper, left back, center back, right back, left wing, center forward, right wing. When a team is on defense, their field positions are called far right, half right, back center, half right, far right, and forward center.
The goalkeeper is one of the most difficult positions in handball. The goalkeeper may act as a field player when outside of their semi-circular goalkeeper perimeter zone, but they may not carry the ball over this line.
If a goalkeeper makes a save that deflects over the goal, the goalkeeper's team retains possession of the ball and play is restarted with a goalkeeper throw. A goalkeeper throw is a very common restart. It occurs whenever a shot goes wide or is deflected over the goal by the goalkeeper. In a goal throw, the goalkeeper throws the ball from his area out to a teammate. The goalkeeper's positioning determines the defensive positions, too: since the goalkeeper needs to be able to see the ball at all times, the defenders need to stand out of the way.
Left and right backs hold very similar roles on the handball court. They are situated in between the left or right wingers and the center players while in attack. In defense, the left and right backs drop in to become left half and right half, respectively. The exact positions of these can change based on the defensive formation and specific types of defense.
Left and right backs have to be some of the most physical players on the team. The left and right backs need to be able to jump over defenders to get shots off because they occupy spaces that are usually more clogged on the court. These players are ideally taller and are strong enough to get long range shots off.
The center back is generally the most experienced player on the team. As the playmaker of the offense, the center back must organize the offense into a coherent attack that can get a quality shot off on the goal. The center back must put their players in good position before being able to get them the ball in an advantageous scoring position. In this way, the center back is a good comparison to a point guard in basketball, who also has to direct teammates before finding the right pass to get a shot off. Being a good center back requires a proactive creative attacking mind, as well as the experience to know how the opposing team might react to certain offensive movements.
The center back also effectively runs the defense. Common defensive formations that the center back might arrange their team into are the 6-0 (or "flat" defense), where every player is on the same level, and the 5-1 defense, where one of the center defenders plays just in front of the other.
The left and right wingers, like left and right backs, hold very similar roles in attacking and defensive play. The wingers are typically faster players because they have to get up and down the court quicker.
Left wingers are usually right handed because they need to be able to get accurate shots off from the left side of the court, and it is easier to do so from an inside angle. Using this same logic, it is also more advantageous for right wingers to be left handed.
The wingers also use wide jumps from the outside of the court to soar into the middle and get even better angles to shoot at the goal from.
On defense, the wingers drop into the right back and left back positions, respectively. They are responsible for guarding the opposing teams' wingers, attempting to cut off their shooting angles by staying in front of them at all times.
The center forward, also known as the pivot or circle runner, has the most unique offensive job to do out of all the field players. The pivot distracts the defense by running around the defensive formations, causing havoc so that the offense might exploit newly exposed chinks in the defense's armor. The pivot can also be a valuable player to pass and receive the ball from, constantly moving to distract the defense. Without the pivot, offensive play in handball would be much more stagnant.
A good pivot needs qualities of strength and agility, but control over passes and shots is also key. The pivot does not need to jump as much as the wingers or backs, as they usually try to make plays from beyond the base layer of defense.
On defense, the pivot becomes the back center of the defense. In this role, the player is responsible for not getting dragged out of position and keeping as much of their body in between the attackers and the goal as possible to block any incoming shots.