Handball enjoys another winning moment in French spotlight
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For France, Monday was a day to glory in another triumph for a sport that means very little in the Anglophone world. Its men had won the European handball title.
The front pages of French newspapers were plastered with photos of men in blue shirts and shorts clasping a trophy while French TV repeatedly broadcast clips of the most dazzling plays as France beat Denmark, 41-32, in Copenhagen in the final the night before.
It was an important moment for a sport that knows that even in its heartland it must make the most of every 15 minutes of fame.
In the United States, the sport is confused with the “handball” that involves hitting a small rubber ball against a wall with the hand. Americans call the sport in which France triumphed “team handball” or, more significantly, “Olympic handball”. The international handball federation may only claim 18 million registered players worldwide, but the sport’s popularity across wide swathes of continental Europe ensured it preserved its Olympic status as baseball and softball were purged ahead of the 2012 Games.
Handball is a fast-paced, physical game. It is played by teams of seven who strive to hurl an inflated ball, weighing the same as a soccer ball but slightly smaller in diameter, into a goal less than half the size of soccer goals. It is traditionally an indoor game, which helps explain its particular appeal in those parts of Europe that suffer long, cold winters. Yet any sport’s popularity is enhanced when your country is winning. That’s something France has done a lot of in the last two decades.
Before 1990, France had never advanced beyond the first round of a major handball tournament. In 1995, it won the world title. This century, it has added three more world titles, two Olympic golds and three European crowns. After winning the world championship in 2011, France held all three major titles at the same time.
Yet the team that arrived in Copenhagen for the European championships appeared to be in a rebuilding phase, weakened by injuries and retirements, along with a potential court case for illegal betting on games hanging over one of its stars, Nikola Karabatic.
In the final on Sunday against Denmark, the tournament favourite, before a crowd of 15,000 Danes, the French raced to a 13-4 lead after 16 minutes. They never let the Danes closer than eight goals the rest of the way.
Karabatic was voted the tournament’s most valuable player.
The tough guys
France’s handball teams have a tradition of nicknames. The 1995 team members were known as the “barjots,” or nutcases, because they sported weird haircuts. The 2001 world champions, who twice came from a goal behind in the dying seconds, were the “tough guys”. The team that won the Beijing Olympics dubbed itself “les experts,” after the French title for the CSI TV series.
On Monday, the French media were falling over themselves to coin a new nickname: “the indestructibles”, “the fantastics”, “the ghosts,” “the hard-nosed” were among the suggestions. All this was good PR for a sport that knows it needs it.
French handball players have a reputation for being nicer and more approachable than the members of the country’s increasingly unpopular national soccer team. That is hardly surprising given the vast gap in pay and handball’s acute sense that, even in the home of its most successful team, it is an underdog that needs to work hard to win friends and fans.
Amid the celebrations in Copenhagen on Sunday, the players had not lost sight of the bigger picture.
“The most important thing today is that handball be recognised in France,” Michaël Guigou, the left winger on the team, told AFP. “Every time we win, we write ourselves a little more into history, and that’s what we’re after.”