French Handball Mania to Throttle Miami This Weekend

The Marlins settled for 600 fans per home game last year. The Panthers are literally giving away tickets. Minor-league soccer squad Miami FC is hemorrhaging cash.

So you might think it'd be foolhardy to bet big bucks on Miamians attending the championship of a sport most Americans have never heard of. But don't tell that to Cristian Zaharia, Romanian handball Olympian and one of the organizers bringing the French Handball League Cup Finals -- the Super Bowl of a game that's huge in Europe and parts of Latin America -- to the American Airlines Arena this Friday. "It's the most American sport that Americans don't play yet," insists the tall, mustached Zaharia, who for six years has coached the amateur Miami Sharks. "It's athletic, fast-paced, spectacular, played with your hands, and played indoors, which is nice for the hot climates."

The way Zaharia describes it, European handball -- definitely not the same thing, by the way, that your knee-padded Abuelo plays in Flamingo Park on Sundays -- is basketball with less tattoos and more berets. In fact, it's a griffin of sports, a rapid, high-scoring hardcourt contest with probable origins in Greece and containing traces of b-ball, hockey, soccer, and lacrosse. Its boom-shaka-laka maneuver is the alley-oop-esque "kung fu," in which one player chucks the ball to a leaping teammate near a goal, who in turn tosses it past the burning-with-shame goalie.

Zaharia has partnered with A.C. Tellison, a former University of Miami star tight end and NFL draftee, to bring the finals to the States for the next three years, with Orlando leading the contenders for 2010's host cities. French President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to attend one of the tournaments, says Zaharia. To European handball bigwigs, Miami's tourney is the first step in the coup of the average American sports fan's heart -- and one day soon, Carol City school kids could be wearing Jean-Luc Thiebaut throwback jerseys. So why was our city chosen? As it's put by French handball magazine HandAction -- find it at Borders next to Jai-Alai Illustrated -- it's all about Miami's melting-pot status: "Unlike the citizens of Nebraska and Texas, Floridians will maybe have at least heard a distant cousin speak of handball in their lives."

While we're still looking for our handball-frenzied third cousin, Riptide is rooting for the two-day tournament to sell out. Zaharia knows the way to our cash-strapped hearts: Tickets are only $10.

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