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LONDON 2012

Losing never felt so good

July 30, 2012|BILL PLASCHKE
  • That's not a fanatic British spectator, that's Coach Dragan Djukic during his team's handball match against France on Sunday.
That's not a fanatic British spectator, that's Coach Dragan… (Javier Soriano / Getty Images )

LONDON — The Bad News Brits turned their heads up to the thousands of cheers as if standing under a warm shower, the roaring passion washing over their torn jerseys and mismatched socks.

They had just lost to France, 44-15.

The Bad News Brits walked off the handball court at the Copper Box as champions walk, blowing kisses to women, throwing wristbands to children, waving at all that love.

The British men's handball team now has a lifetime record of 9-62.

"My heart was racing, and there was a tear in my eye,'' said playmaker Ciaran Williams.

On a rainy night that perhaps only that local Dickens dude would have completely understood, the Olympic spirit descended Sunday in the best of moments upon the worst of teams.

The British handballers, who are in the Olympics only because the host country can enter every sport without qualification, are like high schoolers thrust into the NBA playoffs. They are arguably the most awful squad in these entire Games.

The sport was resurrected in this country only six years ago. At the time, Britain didn't even have a regulation court. The players answered ads on the Internet. Some of them painted toilets to pay for their training. Some of them slept on floors. They once played a match in an empty stadium. None of them ever felt as if it was entirely worth it.

Then they showed up for their first Olympic game Sunday against two-time defending world champion France in a cramped arena with an announcer's stunning warning.

"If you are cheering for Great Britain, you might be a little disappointed," he boomed.

Disappointed? It turns out, the locals were thrilled. They filled many of the 7,000 seats in this copper-tinted building and loudly adored this collection of handballers as if they were a couple of dozen Hugh Grants.

"We went through so much to get here, and we always wondered what would happen when we did," said left wing John Pearce. "Then we walked out today and all the heartache was worth it."

The fans cheered each of the goals as though it was a Super Bowl kick. They cheered each fastbreak as though it ended in a slam dunk, even if sometimes, their players acted as if they were trying to throw the ball in the Thames. They cheered as if they had no idea what was happening. But in a way, maybe they did.

"I bet 60% didn't even know what they were watching, but they gave us their heart," said wing Steven Larsson. "It was a sight I'll never forget."

Waving a Union Jack in one end zone with her family of four, London's Karen Cornell laughed and said, "I told myself, I'm going to find out the rules, and then I'm going to cheer for my guys."

Wearing a shirt bearing the Union Jack in the other end zone, London's Clare Hester said, "I didn't know we had a team; I didn't even know there was a sport. But, you know, this is my country."

The more the Bad News Brits stank, the more the fans roared. And, blimey, they really stank.

Losing 44-15 in team handball is like losing 120-50 in basketball. It was a mismatch of geographical proportions. It was the "Mona Lisa" against a meat pie.

In this game that is foreign to the United States -- neither of our teams qualified -- the object is basically to play keep-away with a melon-sized ball long enough to throw it in a netted goal. The Brits were too small to keep the ball and too slow to catch the French after losing it. After Britain somehow scored the first goal, sending the crowd into a frenzy, it soon disappeared underneath the sort of avalanche that only occasionally happens on the slopes of the Winter Games.

At halftime, the score was 21-7, and in the concourse I caught up with three friends of goalie and captain Robert White.

"All I can say is, four years ago Robert was a football player, and he saw something on the Internet, and now he's here," said Ricky Tester, shaking his head. "I don't care what happens out there, this is all pretty amazing."

The players were small, but their spirits grew. The more the French poured it on, the more the British pounded their chests and embraced the moment. At one point, Larsson was given a red card for rough play, but instead of leaving the floor, he simply wrapped himself in a flag and cheered from the sidelines.

The game ended, one last standing ovation, the most touching of pleas for more time with a team that should never have been here in the first place.

"Yeah, they are our worst team; I've never heard of anybody playing handball in the [United Kingdom] in my life," said Will Smith, a London lawyer. "But how often do you have a chance to come together and support your country no matter what? This is one of those times."

Afterward, reality descended upon the Bad News Brits again as there were only four people in their post-match news conference.

"Nothing will be the same after tonight," insisted Britain Coach Dragan Djukic.

If he means that Britain will probably not continue playing handball after these Olympics, he's probably right. But for a couple of hours Sunday, the Bad News Brits were golden, the moment casting a glow on these Olympics and its people.

"We will ... we will ... rock you!" their fans had the nerve to chant.

On a night where everything went wrong, they were exactly right.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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