Program coordinator travels world as handball referee


With more than 30 million players worldwide, team handball is a popular sport still largely unknown in the United States.

What appears at a glance to be a combination of soccer, basketball and football, the highly competitive sport is a staple in countries around the globe.

Rafael Marques, a program coordinator in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business’ Sanger Leadership Institute, grew up playing handball in Brazil. After moving to the United States, he searched for opportunities to play and found a different avenue to get involved with the game: refereeing.

While he was already familiar with the sport’s basic rules after years of playing, Marques found he needed to develop new skills to excel as a referee.

A photo of women playing handball
Rafael Marques (left) referees a match between Argentina and Mexico at the 2021 Pan American Games in Colombia. (Photo courtesy of Rafael Marques)

“Team handball is a difficult sport to referee because it’s fast-paced It’s a lot of physical contact,” Marques said. “There’s a lot of rules and intricacies, and managing the game and having leadership on the court was something that I faced at the beginning. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve played this but now I see how referees really have a hard time managing a match and protecting the player’s health and ensuring that rules are enforced.’”

Handball is a team sport played indoors with seven members on each team. Players use their hands to pass a ball across a court and score points by throwing the ball through the opposing team’s goal. Standard games last 60 minutes, with two 30-minute halves.

Being a referee can be an inexact science, and Marques said mistakes are part of the game, despite his best efforts to avoid them.

“It’s all about leadership and bringing people in, but there are moments when my decisions upset players,” he said. “We aim to make the correct calls and officiate at the highest level, but we are humans. I make mistakes on court. So, yes, sometimes you get players yelling back at you, and that’s when I reach into my bag of tricks where I put a strategy to manage the game.”

A photo of a handball referee making a call
Rafael Marques makes a call at the Mexico City World Championship qualification games. (Photo courtesy of Rafael Marques)

While handball games in regions with high numbers of teams, like South America and Europe, take place every weekend, handball tournaments in the United States are only held once or twice a month, Marques said. With the nearest handball clubs in Detroit and Ohio, Marques finds himself traveling outside of the Midwest for most of his tournaments. 

Marques has traveled for handball games in California, Texas, Colorado, Florida and New York. He has also refereed internationally in Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico. Marques hopes to find more opportunities to referee games across Europe and Asia.

“It’s a fun opportunity for me to travel to places which I love, and on the way, you make friends. I have friends all over the world,” he said. “Recently, I was in California, and I reconnected with some referees that came from Germany. So, you’re just in a community and you just see each other on a relatively regular basis, which is really fun. So, I think the community is something I really enjoy about this opportunity.”

With eight years of referee experience under his belt, Marques has his eyes set on an ultimate goal: refereeing handball in the Olympics. 

“(Refereeing at the Olympics) would be my dream. Athletes — the best of the best — competing for an Olympic medal, being part of this sport as a referee at that level would mean so much to me,” Marques said.

Marques hopes to make his Olympic dream a reality alongside his referee partner, Kevin Poulet. Team handball matches are typically refereed by two people, and Marques and Poulet have been partners for five years. Traveling across the globe to referee together, the pair have struck up a strong friendship. 

“Having the same goals and the same vision is really what makes referee couples successful because on the court it’s not just me and him, it’s the both of us trying to achieve the same thing, be on the same pace,” Marques said. “So, we’ve developed the way we look at each other or make body language signals.

  • The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at

“We’ve been enjoying the experience and going through this process together. We both have our personal responsibilities with work and personal endeavors as well, but having this part in our lives is very meaningful to both of us.”

According to Handball USA, the sport is slowly but surely spreading in North America. Twenty-five universities in the United States had handball teams in 2020, compared to only five universities in 2000.

Marques said he hopes to one day start a handball team for U-M students.

“I’ve been contemplating it for a long time, especially because we have such a large international community of students here who probably know and played and would enjoy this as an opportunity to expose the sport to Americans who probably never heard of the sport and would probably fall in love with it,” Marques said.

Marques said he is excited to continue furthering his referee career and engaging with the handball community.

“I think this is a passion for me not only because I really enjoy being active and having physical activities in my life,” Marques said. “I just feel like that having work responsibilities and then having this outlet to just go on the weekends and having this more relaxed other part of my life going on really makes a good balance and makes me have this balanced life. And moving forward, it’s something that I really appreciate and really enjoy.”


Leave a comment

Please read our comment guidelines.