Third time the charm for France against Sweden?
27 Jan. 2023
It has been a remarkable last 30 years for France, as no team in history has made it to the quarter-finals of the IHF Men's World Championship so many times as "Les Experts". In fact, since Sweden 1993, France have never missed the top 8 in the world handball flagship competition, creating a streak of 16 consecutive editions with a quarter-finals berth sealed and making it 14 times to the semi-finals.
Despite new faces in the squad, some injuries which derailed Guillaume Gille's plans and stiff competition, France have extended that streak at Poland/Sweden 2023, even making it to the semi-finals by riding a seven-match winning streak, one of the two teams to do so in the competition, alongside Sweden.
In fact, the second semi-final at Poland/Sweden 2023 sees two of the sides that secured only wins so far, while in the first one, pitting together Spain and Denmark, both teams have either lost a match – Spain – or drew one – with the reigning champions salvaging a point against Croatia in the main round.
Yet France's mettle will be tested to the full in this semi-final, the third one in three years at major tournaments between Sweden and "Les Experts". The co-hosts at Poland/Sweden 2023 eliminated France both at the 2021 IHF Men's World Championship and the EHF EURO 2022, which could create some questions marks for France's coach Guillaume Gille.
In fact, France have only won 18 of the 56 matches in which the two teams have faced off, but after a three-match winning streak for France, including at Qatar 2015 and France 2017, Sweden bounced back and sealed a 32:26 win in the semi-finals at Egypt 2021 and a 34:33 win in the semi-finals of the EHF EURO 2022.
Nevertheless, Gille is quite adamant that history does not matter in this context, with both teams going head-to-head until the last minute for the big prize – a match for the trophy next Sunday in the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm.
"We have learned from these recent negative experiences, which have inevitably left their mark. Sweden are an opponent that we know well, who have been hurting us in the last few years. We know that the fight will once again be fierce. It's up to us to show a better face," says Gille before the match against the co-hosts.
In the quarter-final against Egypt, Sweden broke the all-time record for the number of fans present at a match of their men's senior team, with 16,215 spectators cheering for their favourite side in the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm. That record is expected to be broken on Friday when France and Sweden fight for a place in the final.
"We can only imagine this arena reaching boiling point during the match, with everybody dressed in yellow, cheering for their own favourites," adds Gille before the match, with France already having the experience of playing the other co-hosts, Poland, in a packed Spodek Arena in Katowice in the preliminary round, a match which France won, 26:24.
This time, however, the challenge will be even bigger. Sweden have proven their mettle, yet they will have a huge absence from their squad, as Jim Gottfridsson suffered an injury in the match against Egypt and will miss the final weekend at Poland/Sweden 2023, with the centre back being impossible to replace.
"It will be a big miss for Sweden, Jim [Gottfridsson] is a crucial player for them, but they still play at home, they have a very good team and it will be a very tough match," says France's right back, Dika Mem.
Mem, 25, will be key for France, especially as "Les Experts" have injury worries on the other side of the back line, with Nikola Karabatić and Thibaud Briet being doubts, carrying injuries into the match.
This will also be Mem's 100th match for France, with the right back establishing himself as one of the top players in the world since making his debut in the national team in 2016. Mem is a proven player already with a gold medal at France 2017 and a bronze at Denmark/Germany 2019 and the Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.
The right back also missed three matches at Poland/Sweden 2023 with an abdominal strain, but he came back for the last matches in the main round; he looks like himself and is ready for the challenge, knowing that his expertise will be required for the match against Sweden.
"An atmosphere like the one we will face in Stockholm, even if it is hostile, will be a boost for us. It is always a positive thing to play in front of so many fans, no matter who they support," concludes Mem.
If France manage to break the losing streak against Sweden, they are set to play their eighth final in the last 16 editions of the competition, an unprecedented hit rate of 50%. And, as history shows, "Les Experts" won six of the seven finals they played, which historically is impossible to repeat by any side.
Therefore, the question is simple: will the third time be the charm for France?