They didn’t expect to invite themselves to the banquet. But after their snatch victory Wednesday January 27 against Hungary (35-32 after extra time), here is indeed the Blues in the last four of the World Handball. In view of the record of the France team, it’s a good old habit, the 24e semi-final of its history, all international competitions combined. For these Blues, however, it is a real feat.
“If I had been told that we were going to line up seven wins in seven games, I wouldn’t have believed it”, admitted winger Valentin Porte beaming at the end of the meeting. “It’s a great group victory”, applauded the pivot Ludovic Fabregas. A victory in two stages, a perfect summary of this Mondial des Bleus, which tells for the moment the unexpected rebirth of a collective force totally scattered a year earlier.
Rebuild on a field of ruins
It was at Euro 2020, an elimination from the preliminary round, the worst result for the Blues in more than a quarter of a century. Trauma, a dislocated group and a coach, Didier Dinart, thanked bluntly, replaced by his assistant and former teammate, Guillaume Gille. On top of this great upheaval, the coronavirus, the absence of any regrouping for ten months and the serious injury of his playing master Nikola Karabatic, in mid-October.
At the time of the resumption, in early January 2021 for two friendlies against Serbia, nothing is going. With a defeat and a draw, the only baggage that the Blues carry for the World Cup in Egypt does not weigh heavily. Everyone imagines that they will fold it very quickly. Except that. The Blues continue. More than convincing victories against Norway, vice-world champion at the start of the competition (28-24), and Portugal, scarecrow to qualify for the quarter-finals (32-23). And between the two, chaotic matches packed on the wire, against Switzerland (25-24), Algeria (29-26) or Iceland (28-26).
The benchmark for “participatory management”
The Blues played the same dissonant music against Hungary. A catastrophic start to the game (1-7 after eleven minutes of play) then a second half all in regained authority, but which leaves the Hungarians to offer themselves in extremis an extension, before a success in the wear. Emotional yo-yo. The affair is nevertheless negotiated without panic.
“This team is a work in progress, comments Philippe Bana, the president of the French Handball Federation. It still lacks stability. But what is certain is that the glue has set, between the guys, with the supervision: a group is born. “
Philippe Bana knows what he is talking about. The former national technical director had developed with the coach Claude Onesta a “participative management” which made the heyday of the “Strong” and “Experts” for 15 years. “In the France team, the players took part in a common laboratory, were associated with the game strategy and the operating rules of the group. They are deeply attached to this adventure which mixed high level competition and personal development ”, underlined Claude Onesta in 2017 to explain the long domination of his Blues. “Each story is unique, but Guillaume Gille shares the same idea of co-construction”, says Philippe Bana.
A newfound ability to live together
Guillaume Gille talks about “Accountability” players. Almost daily, a “game council” meets, with management and referent players, to discuss strategy. “It’s a mix of ideas that come together, we complement each other well”, appreciates the center-half Kentin Mahé. The involvement of all is obvious and encouraged by Guillaume Gille, who does not hesitate to rotate the workforce.
As for the management, it is the same sacred union, with the new assistant Érick Mathé and the physical trainer Olivier Maurelli. “It is a very close-knit staff, with obvious complementarity”, observes Philippe Bana. An osmosis all the more remarkable as the constraints of the coronavirus have forced this small world to live in isolation for almost five weeks. “I am still surprised by the ability of people to live together”, testifies Pierre Sébastien, the doctor of the Blues.
Enough to secure a podium, and perhaps a new major title, the first since the 2017 World Cup? “We are on a path where, during each outing, we try to grow as a team, accumulate experience and solve problems”, procrastinated Guillaume Gille before the match against Portugal. The judgment is still valid. But it is well known: the appetite comes with eating.
The new Swedish youth
They too are in reconstruction and reconquest. But their glorious past is a bit older than that of the Blues. The Swedes, whom the French will meet in the semi-finals on Friday 29 at 5.30 p.m. (live on TMC and BeIN Sports), dominated the 1990s, accumulating until 2002 no less than four European titles and two world titles.
Since then, their record has remained blank, and no one saw them at the party in Egypt, deprived of eight major players. But with young people with sharp teeth, Sweden managed a clear course and crushed Qatar 35-23 to reach the last four. In the other semi-final, a clash of titans between the reigning world and Olympic champion Denmark and Spain, double European champion.