‘8 Players 1 Heartbeat’: A Game Men and Women Play as Equals
DELFT, the Netherlands — The home coach gathered his players in a semicircle for a PowerPoint pep talk. A chance to win a European championship does not come along regularly, he said. He spoke about analytics, but mostly about predatory determination. Rebound like bears, he said. Make assists as hungrily as wolves. Attack like tigers and panthers.
And then the coach sent his players out for the inaugural Champions League final of korfball, a century-old cousin of basketball. It is one of the world’s most obscure games but among the most progressive, a rare team sport devised expressly for women and men to play together in equal numbers, with equal respect and value and responsibility.
A number of sports hold mixed-gender competitions, like mixed doubles in tennis and relay races in swimming and track and field. But these are essentially individual sports with an occasional team component. With some exceptions like pairs figure skating, ice dancing and ultimate Frisbee, men and women mostly perform independently on teams. But korfball’s ethos is built on essential, intricate collaboration.
Members of Delft’s Fortuna team preparing for a match against the Papendrecht Korfball Club.Credit…Melissa Schriek for The New York Times
Roughly 800 fans crowded around the court in a tiny sports hall here on Feb. 11, many wearing the red colors of Fortuna, the local power. “8 players 1 heartbeat,” said a banner above the court. A drum beat insistently among fans wearing green in support of Fortuna’s Dutch archrival, the Papendrecht Korfball Club, known as PKC.
“These are the two best teams in the world,” Damian Folkerts, 38, co-coach of Fortuna, said after his PowerPoint presentation.
Korfball is played by about one million people in 70 countries but is dominated by the Dutch in skill, participation and enthusiasm. At this match, music played in the sports hall, and a strobe light bathed the players during introductions. Two crews readied their livestream broadcasts, one in Dutch, one in English. The anticipation felt both casual and feverish for a niche sport that has long sought its global moment and hopes to find it by gaining inclusion in the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, Australia.
“We’re a well-kept secret, a very small sport with very big dreams,” said Gabi Kool, who will become president of the International Korfball Federation in October.
Korf is Dutch for basket, and as the Fortuna-PKC match began, the similarities to basketball (a 25-second shot clock, free throws) became quickly apparent, as did the striking differences. There were no Curry-esque 3-pointers or Griner-esque dunks in a sport where all goals count for 1 point. It’s not that dunking is against the rules; it’s just that it might require a ladder. The cylindrical plastic basket, attached to neither a backboard nor a net, sits 11½ feet atop a metal pole, a foot and a half higher than a basketball rim.
Dribbling or running with the soccer-sized ball was not permitted. No shots were allowed with a defender within arms’ reach of an attacker.
Korfball was invented in 1902 by a Dutch schoolteacher, Nico Broekhuysen, who sought to create a game that boys and girls could play together. It was modeled on the early rules of women’s basketball, designed to offset overpowering physical advantages like height and to foster cooperation.
“It really helps to build community and communication, just like the rest of society where men and women work together to solve problems,” said Carl Yerger, the president of the fledgling United States Korfball Federation.
‘Five LeBrons on One Squad’
Fortuna and PKC played a traditional, eight-versus-eight match. Each team had two men and two women playing offense on one half of the court and two apiece playing defense on the other half, their roles switching after every two baskets. Shots — taken from a panoramic 360 degrees around the pole — were not launched with the familiar gooseneck release of basketball. Rather, to create required space from defenders, shots were often two-handed and one-legged, taken in a step-back motion, fingers and thumbs spread across the ball in the shape of a butterfly.
PKC took a 6-1 lead after the first of four 10-minute quarters. The lack of a backboard, the height of the basket and rules that limit layups and putbacks, often resulting in longer shots, generally keep shooting accuracy below 30 percent. But PKC was ravenous in rebounding and smothering in defense, inspired with crisp passing and movement as swirling as a starry van Gogh night.
Sanne van der Werff, 24, serves as a kind of point guard for PKC and the Dutch national team while attending medical school, throwing left-handed passes on the perimeter, shooting reliably and dropping into the post for elaborate screens and handoffs beneath the basket. The hierarchical nature of hospital instruction leaves her feeling less trained than fully certified doctors, she said. But in korfball, which she has played since age 7, she said: “I feel equal to the boys. I can say what I want. I can do what I want. I see a boy just as another girl on our team. A two-meter-tall girl.”
By halftime, Fortuna trailed, 12-4. The team seemed surprisingly lethargic on its home court. One of its top men was absent with an injury. All of its goals had been scored by women, including two by Celeste Split, 32, the career scoring leader among female players in the Dutch league with more than 900 goals.
“There is a saying that with good women, you can win championships,” Split said.
And without enough elite female players?
“I don’t think you can win,” said her teammate, Fleur Hoek, 26, also a star on the Dutch national team.
PKC, billed as the world’s largest korfball club with roughly 1,000 members, has embraced this strategy with blunt resolve.
When its coequal head coaches — Wim Scholtmeijer, 40, and Jennifer Tromp, 44 — took charge for the 2020-21 season, they began to dismantle the club’s male-dominated culture, telling men on the team, “You have to listen to the girls.”
At practices, the coaches repeatedly played a Beyoncé song with the lyrics, “Who run the world? Girls.”
“The boys were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Tromp said with a laugh.
The reasons for promoting women were as tactical as they were social.
As korfball developed a more dynamic style, top Dutch clubs like PKC and Fortuna hastened the transition from traditional roles of men rebounding and scoring and women providing assists. PKC’s motto is that women should be dominant in attack. The more players who can score, the more threatening and unpredictable a team becomes.
And because skill differences among women are generally somewhat larger than those among men at this stage of korfball’s development, Scholtmeijer said, female players can provide the decisive edge in matches with speed, anticipation, elusiveness and shooting. On PKC, the shooting accuracy of the women is higher than that of the men.
Drawing a basketball analogy, Scholtmeijer, a former coach of the Dutch national korfball team, said, “If you put five LeBrons on one squad, it’s much more difficult to defend.”
Some critics contend that korfball undermines gender equality by requiring women to guard women and men to guard men. While this might reinforce preconceptions about physical superiority, a widely held view within the sport is that changing the marking rules would be unfair. Women would be held to far fewer shots if guarded by taller and bigger men, which would radically alter the inclusive nature of the game, said Laura Gubby, a lecturer at Canterbury Christ University in England, who has played and researched korfball.
“It simply wouldn’t work in the current form,” Gubby said.
Another concern is that Dutch dominance could hamper korfball’s chances of eventually gaining Olympic entry. In the Netherlands, members of the national team are professionals or semi-pros, eligible for age-based stipends of up to about $3,600 a month, said Frank Buvens, a longtime international korfball official. Elsewhere, the sport is mostly amateur. In the United States, korfball is available in some physical education classes, but probably only 50 to 300 people play a beach version in the Pacific Northwest or informal matches at a few universities.
“You can’t go to the store and say, I want the korfball section,” said Yerger, the president of the American federation.
The International Korfball Federation is looking primarily toward Asia — where the game is more integrated into schools and universities — for growth and commercial potential. Taiwan is the world’s third-ranked team behind the Netherlands and Belgium, while China is ranked fifth. An Olympic version would very likely feature fewer than eight players per team, either in a beach format or a version resembling three-on-three basketball, partly in the hope that smaller teams would make games more competitive.
A predictable outcome is “very bad for any sport,” said Jan Fransoo, the outgoing president of the International Korfball Federation.
Korfball is also making plans for transgender athletes. This year, its governing body expects to propose that of eight positions on a court, four spots would be reserved for athletes designated female at birth, with the other four spots considered an open category. Unlike track and field, transgender women would not have to lower their testosterone levels to become eligible.
“We feel we have to start from the perspective of being inclusive, while at the same time protecting the fairness of competition for women,” Fransoo said.
The Need for ‘Dominant Women’
On Feb. 11, Fortuna could never make up ground on PKC, which won handily, 19-10. The PKC players were mobbed by their supporters. One or two bodysurfed atop raised arms. A trophy was presented, medals were handed out. The public address system played, “We Are the Champions.”
But this was only a prelude. The teams were to meet again days later in a Dutch league match. For a fourth straight season, they are also expected to meet in April in the league championship game in Rotterdam, where the crowd will reach 8,000 or more instead of 800, and the match will be carried on national television.
As he left the court after the Champions League final, Scholtmeijer, PKC’s co-head coach and the former Dutch national coach, stopped for a minute. He wanted to say more about the vital inclusion of female players, who have been described by themselves and others as indispensable, calming, builders of social cohesion, direct but fair in criticism of teammates.
“I believe male athletes function better when they have dominant women around them,” Scholtmeijer said. “When you have a dominant male culture, it’s not sustainable. It is more ego driven. If it works, you can go really fast, but it’s like driving a car. If you go too fast, you drive off the curve. Males perform better when they have strong women around them. I don’t say that women should be the boss. But females have to be equally involved.”