The 25th IHF Men’s Handball World Championship is set to open with an exciting match between two teams with very different back stories, as 2015 world champions and hosts of the tournament, France, meet Pan American title-holders Brazil.
With a record tally of five World Championship titles, after they raised the trophy in 1995, 2001, 2009, 2011 and 2015; a formidable squad including three former IHF World Handball Players of the Year – Nikola Karabatic (2007, 2014) Thierry Omeyer (2008) and Daniel Narcisse (2012); and a silver medal won at the most recent major international tournament, the 2016 Olympic Games, France would be considered a contender for the trophy no matter where the tournament was staged.
But the World Championship will be played in France, and the odds will therefore lean ever so slightly more in favour of ‘Les Bleus’ when they take to the court in front of the thousands of spectators booked for their group phase matches in Paris and Nantes.
“Mythical players like Daniel Narcisse, Thierry Omeyer…They have won so many medals and given so many magical moments to France that we would like to do something in France 2017 with them. It would be wonderful for us; we are looking forward to that,” said line player Luka Karabatic at the end of France’s Olympic campaign in August.
Alongside these ‘mythical’ players, new France coaching duo Didier Dinart and Guillame Gille, both of whom were part of the French team that claimed the Olympic title in 2012, have named several exciting rising stars in their line-up. Young VELUX EHF Champions League players such as Ludovic Farbregas, Kentin Mahe and Nedim Remili are listed alongside the experienced stalwarts, and former world champion (1995) and ambassador for the 2017 World Championship, Phillippe Gardent, believes the team have rarely looked so good:
“I saw France play a friendly match against Slovenia and I have almost never seen them more powerful. There are lots of young players, and they [the squad] count on great experience too,” said Gardent on the eve of the opening game. “We have everything we need to be champions.”
Olympic hosts hungry for results
France begin their quest against a somewhat unpredictable opponent however, as Brazil are fresh off the back of a historic Olympic Games that saw them finish with their highest-ever ranking in the competition after reaching the quarter-finals for the first time. Brazil have been teetering on the edge for years with many tight games that saw them lose by the narrowest of margins at the previous World Championship in Qatar, where they also happened to be drawn as the first opponent for the host team.
At the Rio 2016 Games the breakthrough finally came, when Brazil defeated the likes of EHF EURO 2016 champions Germany and Poland, who went on to finish fourth right behind Germany on the final ranking. The hosts therefore made their way to the quarter-finals before meeting the end of their 2016 Olympic dream with a 27:34 loss to none other than France – but they made a statement with the results and there is no team that can afford to underestimate the determined Brazilians.
Brazil are also a team featuring a mixture of youth and experience, as former head coach Jordi Ribera, who left the Pan American team after the Olympic Games and now leads 2013 world champions Spain, outlined:
“A big part of our first line is formed by players who acted at the Brazil 2015 Junior World Championship. (Jose Guilherme de) Toledo is 22 years old, as well as Leo (Santos) and Joao (Silva), while Haniel (Langaro) is 21,” said Ribera, who is credited with leading a period of incredible change in the Brazil men’s team, and has been succeeded by his assistant coach Washington Nunes.
Although Nunes guided the national team from 2008 to 2009, the 2017 World Championship will be a baptism by fire for him:
“We want to continue with the process we have been going through. The idea is not to leave a dead cycle, but to guarantee continuity, as if it was a spiral,” says Nunes. Considering that the best historic rank for Brazil in the Men’s World Championship was the 13th place at Spain 2013, it is undeniable that they now aim high:
“Although we are in a tough group, our expectations for the World Championship are really good because of the development of our team during the last four years. Our goal is to make it to the quarter-finals.”
France play Brazil at 20:45 CET in AccorHotels Arena, Paris on January 11 following the official opening ceremony.