“A game of miracles”, laughs the goalkeeper of the Blues, Vincent Gérard, when asked his opinion on the semi-final which awaits his people, so much we believed that the access match for the final of this curious Hungarian Euro of handball would oppose the Iceland to Norway. Two comebacks, each as unexpected as the other, have upset the situation and offer the bill to France and Sweden.
Obliged not to lose, the band at Karabatic had to come up with five downside goals less than a quarter of an hour from the end against the Danish reigning double world champion – fortunately already qualified and who was playing without Mikkel Hansen, left at the rest – to win over an achievement by Dika Mem two minutes from time (30-29). Similar intrigue for their Swedish opponents this Friday evening, four lengths behind with fifteen minutes to go, before a scathing 5-0 final struck by the teammates of captain Jim Gottfridsson.
Two comebacks with such a gap and in such a short period of time in international competition, that’s “a rarity in modern handball”, did not fail to recall French left winger Hugo Descat, who made a crucial contribution on Wednesday (eight goals, including seven penalties).
The shadow of the virus
The match of the miraculous also applies to its health reality, as this Euro has quickly become unpredictable as possible, punctuated by the resurgence of Covid cases in many selections. To the point of making the virus the main player in the tournament: in the other half, Danes and Spaniards are among the teams having identified the fewest cases of Covid. They had quieter qualifying.
The same cannot be said for France and Sweden. The Blues have long been spared, and it was seen on the ground with 100% victories at the end of the first round and a demonstration against the Netherlands during the first meeting of the main round (34-24). And then omicron came into play: Karl Konan first contracted it, then Kentin Mahé, then Nicolas Tournat, then Guillaume Gille, while Ludovic Fabregas, suffering from flu syndrome, was also unavailable during the cotton defeat ( 21-29) against Iceland.
This Friday, Tournat and Mahé will still be in a healing protocol, again forced to scream alone in front of their TV in their hotel room. Sweden will itself be amputated by a few pieces. And not least: top scorer Hampus Wanne (41 goals) and Niclas Ekberg are in isolation, as is Lukas Sandell, sixteen goals since the start of the competition, confirmed positive on Thursday. Doubt persists regarding future PSG goalkeeper Andreas Palicka as well as Felix Claar, uncertain after testing positive on January 23.
The health configuration and the multiple defections it entails prevent talking of revenge, exactly a year after the Blues failed at the same stage against the Imperial Swedes, during the world championships (32-26). “We had been far from their level”, recalls Nikola Karabatic who had however followed the meeting from home after suffering a serious injury to the cruciate ligament of the knee in 2020. Despite the absences, the French coach, Guillaume Gille, is well aware of having “an adversary who has become a team in the elite of nations for a few years now, with a very talented young generation”.
Still, France has moved well since its setback at the World Cup. She found her mentors (if Nedim Remili and Luka Karabatic are missing on this Euro, the other Karabatic knows how to be lethal when necessary) and above all restored her image with the Olympic title in Tokyo. It was structured around reliable executives, relying on the golden vintage of the 1996-1997 generations: the “old hands” (Dika Mem, Romain Lagarde, Ludovic Fabregas, Melvyn Richardson) integrated the new ones (Yanis Lenne, Aymeric Minne) and the ghost (Benoît Kounkoud, present at Euro 2016, but long stuck in his post by Luc Abalo). While the brand new guard is coming, symbolized by Dylan Nahi, the youngest player in history to have worn the France team jersey (at 17 years and 10 months).
The alchemy seemed to take, when the Covid was not yet acting up. This was less the case when it was necessary to adapt between survivors on the pitch in the last three games, but it is because the Blues have an inexhaustible reservoir of talent that they are still there, at the conquest of a fourth continental title. Casually, the last dates from eight years ago, and since then Vincent Gérard’s teammates have never set foot in a Euro final.