Even though the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow still are more than a year away, American team handball forces already are eyeing the 1984 Games in more friendly Los Angeles.

Both the men's and women's teams must travel a hard road just to qualify for a trip to Moscow. If they should make it there, the Americans are faced with the prospect of decisive setbacks in just about every outing.

The men must win the North and South American zone qualification against teams from Canada, Mexico, Argentina and possibly Cuba to earn the final berth in the difficult Group A, which includes the defending gold medalist Soviet Union, powerful East Germany, Poland, Romania and Switzerland.

The supposedly easier Group B consists of 1978 world champion West Germany, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Spain and qualifiers from Asia and Africa. "The men we want to qualify and win one game (of five round-robin matches)," said Peter Buehning, president of the United States Team Handball Federation. "If we can get eight to 10 (in the standings), it would be a great success. Our big goal is 1984. We want to get a good start for then."

Buehning said he was encouraged by the growing handball movement in the U.S., noting that a record 18 teams competed in the recent nationals, traveling at their own expense. The 14-man national team, likely to be spearheaded by two-time Olympian Rick Abrahamson, will be chosen from "40 qualified candidates," an unprecedented luxury.

Team handball - "the other handball" in the United States, where the individual application of the sport prevails - much resembles water polo on land.

Seven players, including a goalie, pass and dribble a leather ball seven inches in diameter and try to throw it into a goal approximately 6 1/2 feet high and 10 feet wide. A fast, physical sport, the body contact in team handball lies somewhere between that of basketball and ice hockey.