The US national team is knee deep in the IFA Fistball World Cup right now. They’re ready to face the Czech Republic on Friday after knocking off Japan in three straight games a day ago.
Watching fistball is so fun you’ll want to jump in and play. And it’s probably easier to watch than explain. Still, this action-packed game makes you want to ask, “What the heck is Fistball"? So, I went up to Wisconsin over a month ago to ask the players what their sport is all about.
"You know, I get that a lot", says Patrick White, 24, a member of the US National team. "My friends asked me if it was like boxing or punching balls", said the mohawk-clad striker. "Or, some sort of strange, risqué activity." White started playing in high school, when any mention of fistball among teenagers would prompt snickers and smart-alecky jokes.
What fistball is, is a fast and serious sport played in Europe, Brazil and Japan, with a small but dedicated following in the Unites States.
Teammate and defensive player David Kleist, 26, puts it a different way. “You take volleyball and merge it with tennis. But on grass, just like at Wimbledon.”
Just like at the London Grand Slam, balls fly pretty fast, sometimes up to 150 miles per hour. But that’s where most similarities end. Fistball uses a smooth leather ball, approximately the size of a soccer ball without panels, for a more buoyant bounce when struck.
Fistball is made up of two five-a-side teams, pummeling a ball for two 12-minute halves on a 50 by 20 meter field, half the size of an FA regulation soccer pitch. The ball can bounce once between hits, up to three times per possession, as each team's aim is to put the ball across the or rope in a way that the opponent fails to return. Teams play to gain points for each successful strike until time runs out.
When playing the ball with a set, a spike or a pick –which a common move that involves diving for the ball in reaction to a serve-- fistballers must hit the ball with a closed fist at all times. And unlike both volleyball and tennis, you don’t want to serve.
Many of the ten members of the World Cup team are athletes from more well-known American sports. Keith Schweda, who has been playing for six years, made the US national team after spending most of his life as a baseball and football player.
“It takes a while to get a handle of this game,” he said to me after a fast paced league match. But Schweda’s height, at 6’ 3’’, combines well with arm strength gained from the years of throwing pigskin and rawhide.
US Fistball Association president Jim Blank says that the game was likely brought over by German immigrants, and that the German-Americans started to organize leagues in Wisconsin in the 1950s and 60s.
Manfred Angermann, 78, is a proud fistball enthusiast used to play here from 1950 to 1956 before the Army sent him to patrol the West German/Czechoslovakian border. “Unfortunately I had to stop playing for a while to keep the Russians from invading,” says Angermann. “”But I’m so glad to see that the fistball is still played today.”
Likewise, fistball cropped up in outside Philadelphia 40 years ago at the Phoenix Sport Club aka the “First German Sports Club”, from which three of the US star hail. Kris Graham, a USA and Phoenix player known for his versatility and un-German-like gregariousness, also starts for a top league team. “Deutsch-bags is our team’s name,” Graham chirps, noting that perhaps the Germans are funny after all.
“We’ve got tons of optimism about the sport,” says Blank. The USFA president is on a mission to bring fistball to the gym class of every local high school to start. Among the 12 World Cup teams, if the US takes 6th place or higher, it opens up the opportunity for yearly participation in the World Games, the elite tier of fistball.
“Sometimes I think volleyball is bigger because it’s got bikinis and beach sand,” says White, gearing up for another match. “But I think once you play fistball, there is a seriousness and an obsession about the sport that reels you in.”
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