Grit, luck and defence: How France beat the odds to write history

18 Dec. 2021

Grit, luck and defence: How France beat the odds to write history

Qualifying for the big final in one year in the top three international competitions – the IHF Women’s World Championship, the Women’s EHF EURO and the Olympic Games – is not unparalleled, but it is a feature reserved only for the best teams in the history of handball.

Only two other sides have managed that feat, with Denmark conquering all titles, at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, the Women’s EHF EURO 1996 and at Germany 1997, and Norway securing the gold at Brazil 2011, the Olympic Games London 2012 and the silver medal at the Women’s EHF EURO 2012.

Now, the shortlist has been completed by a third team, France, who secured silver at the Women’s EHF EURO 2020, became Olympic champions for the first time at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and have qualified for the final at Spain 2021 with their best start in their participations at the IHF Women’s World Championship.

“For me, the World Championship is the only competition that is missing from my resume. We have already secured a medal, but what I really want is the gold,” said Pauletta Foppa, France’s line player who will turn 21 three days after the big final at Spain 2021, and has been nicknamed ‘The Octopus’ for her antics on the court.

It has been a superb IHF Women’s World Championship edition for France, who can secure their third gold medal in the competition and their second in three editions, after returning eight players from the team that won the title at Germany 2017.

That experience has been priceless in crunch moments, but France have long embodied the team spirit, grit and resilience needed by top teams to reach the pinnacle in the crucial games of the competition. The recipe was the same at Spain 2021, despite ‘Les Bleues’ having one of the most difficult schedules in the competition.

France’s draw has not been kind with the reigning Olympic champions, as Olivier Krumbholz’s side faced seven European opponents on their way to the final, with the eighth game pitting them against African champions, Angola. When France delivered the gold medal at the IHF Women’s World Championship at Croatia 2003 and Germany 2017, they dropped one game each time, but in December 2021, they have truly delivered a performance for the ages, boasting an eight-game winning streak, their biggest in history in the competition.

“It is difficult, because, as the reigning Olympic champions, you have a target on your back and every team wants to beat you. We want to give everything every time we take the court, because we do not know what can happen tomorrow. This is the spirit of French handball,” said centre back Grace Zaadi to after the 23:22 win against Denmark in the semi-finals.

And it was exactly the spirit, shown time and time again in Olivier Krumbholz’s two stints as France’s coach that truly lifted France from difficult moments in this tournament. In the knockout phase, in Granollers, ‘Les Bleuses’ found themselves trailing by two against Sweden and by as many as four in the 39th minute against Denmark.

Each time, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat, displayed enormous courage in defence and stopped the opponents in their tracks, with the kind of defensive nous instilled in the teams that know how to win by spending every ounce of energy in them.

Their attacking stats do not make for easy reading; France have scored 218 goals in eight games, 73 less than Norway. They even scored less than the Netherlands, who had 270 goals, despite playing two games less than the reigning Olympic champions. But the defence worked like a charm, a big improvement from their performance at Japan 2019, when France finished 13th, securing the President’s Cup.

Foppa and Zaadi are France’s top scorers, with 26 and 25 goals, enough for the 48th and 54th places in the top scorers list. To put those numbers into perspective, Sweden’s right wing Nathalie Hagman scored 19 goals in two different matches by herself, against Puerto Rico and Kazakhstan. Yet this does not deter France for a bit.

Everything changes from a defensive perspective, with France conceding 168 goals in the tournament, or 21 goals per game, one goal less than Norway, whom they will meet in the final, but 14 goals more than Denmark, who are the top defence at Spain 2021.

“We won with courage, being competent in defence and bringing lucidity to our game whenever everything looked to be lost. Our defence has been amazing, with the players who are staying in the center, the core for our system, being huge,” said France’s coach, Olivier Krumbholz, after the 23:22 win against Denmark in the semi-final.

Time and time again, those ingredients have been paramount to France’s success in the last two decades, yet opponents have never figured out how to really take advantage of what really hurts France into games. The reigning world champions have one of the worst shooting efficiencies between the 24 teams that qualified for the main round at Spain 2021, 59%, yet came out unscathed in every one of the eight games they played until the final.

According to Krumbholz, this could change in the final, where France need a great game to seal the gold medal.

“Norway might just be the best team in the world,” said France’s coach, after the game against Denmark. The Scandinavian side’s sheer experience in moments like this, also displayed last December, in the EHF EURO final, when they beat France, 22:20, confirms Krumbholz’s opinion.

One that is also shared by Zaadi, who, since her debut in the national team in 2013, has been a mainstay for organising the attack and helping in defence.

“To be honest, if we play like this in the final and we win, we do not care. But, with this type of handball, the risk is very big and we know a bit of luck was also included. We need to play better handball and maintain the same intensity and spirit,” concluded Zaadi.