Korfball: a beginner’s guide to the Netherlands’ secret sport

Korfball: a beginner’s guide to the Netherlands’ secret sport

Are you relatively new to the Netherlands, a bit lost, and having trouble fitting in? Becoming a sports fan can really help!

If you’re already into soccer/football, you might tune into the Eredivisie, convince yourself to fall in love with a Dutch team, and empathise with its highs and lows. Football is certainly the Netherlands’ most popular sport, with more than a million players in the country.

But if you want to become really Dutch - more Dutch, in fact, than most Dutch people themselves - let yourself discover the wonders of korfball.

From ring to korf: the birth of korfball

Korfball, or korfbal, is a homegrown Dutch ball sport first invented in 1902 by Amsterdam schoolteacher Nico Broekhuysen, who had travelled to Sweden for a gymnastics teaching workshop and taken an interest in a local sport called "ringboll".

In ringboll, two mixed-gender teams are divided across three zones, which they may not leave. Players have to work together strategically to shoot the ball through a ring mounted on a pole near the end of each zone.

Broekhuysen simplified the game for his young students, made some adaptions - chiefly, replacing the metal ring with a friendlier-looking basket, or korf - and korfball was born.

Not long after Broekhuysen had begun teaching it, the first korfball club emerged on the humble grounds of Amsterdam’s Jan Luykenstraat.

In 1904, the first Dutch Korfball Association, with Broekhuysen at its helm, established the game’s official rules.

Not quite basketball

Loosely translatable as "basketball" or "netball", Korfball bears strong resemblances to both these more widely recognisable sports.

This unisex sport is played with two teams of eight players, and two basket hoops located partway through each team’s zone at a height of 3,5 metres. The aim is to throw the ball, which is similar in size and shape to a netball, through the other team’s hoop.

Each team designates four attackers, who play in one zone, and four defenders, who play in the other. Players are confined to their zones, aside from when the attacker-defender roles are switched after every two goals.

Players may not kick the ball, dribble, run or walk while holding it. They may only move one foot so as to pass it to another team member.

Korfball fans find the game interesting for the unusual kinds of strategy required to transport the ball past opponents.

Korfball in controversy

One of the most striking features of the sport - its inclusion of men and women within the same teams - has been a characteristic of mainstream korfball since the very beginning.

This does not mean that a korfball team will take any player regardless of gender. A team must be made up either of four men and four women, or occasionally, in some countries, of all female players (there is no men-only league).

Korfball rules reduce the potential of anatomical differences to determine the course of the game by forbidding blocking and tackling. Duels may take place, but only between members of the same gender.

Not surprisingly, the story of korfball’s rise as an established sport is plagued with a history of sexism and discomfort with changing gender roles.

Korfball in The Hague, 1909 (Nijmegen Regional Archive)

Emily McCallum


Emily McCallum

Emily grew up in a small coastal town in western Canada and moved to Utrecht in 2014, after completing her studies in Vancouver and Germany. So far, she has been...

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