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They are known as Les Experts and they are regarded as the greatest generation of handball players the game has ever seen. Coached by Claude Onesta, the likes of Jérôme Fernandez, Didier Dinart, Michael Guigou, Guillaume and Bertrand Gille, Luc Abalo, Daniel Narcisse, Thierry Omeyer and Nikola Karabatic hit the heights of world handball in 2008 and stayed there in the years that followed.
France’s domination of the global handball scene began at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, where they saw off Iceland 28-23 in the final, and continued when they became world champions in Croatia the very next year and then European champions in Austria in 2010. In the process, they became the first team in history to hold all three titles at the same time. Just for good measure, Les Bleus then retained their world crown in Sweden in 2011.
Automatic qualifiers for London 2012, Les Experts nevertheless suffered an unexpected setback at the European Championships in Serbia at the start of that Olympic year. Beaten by Spain, Hungary and then Croatia, they failed to progress beyond the main round and finished a lowly 11th in a competition won by Denmark.
Determined to atone for that surprising reversal in their fortunes, the French kicked off their Olympic title defence at London’s Copper Box Arena with a comfortable 44-15 defeat of the hosts, a result they backed up with wins over Argentina (32-20), Tunisia (25-19) and Sweden (29-26), though a narrow 29-30 loss to Iceland would consign them to second place in the pool.
“Make three passes!”
The defending champions then took on Spain in the quarter-finals, a breathless match the French won 23-22 thanks to a last-second goal from their young left back William Accambray. After overcoming the Croatians 25-22 two days later in the semis, France then faced Sweden with the gold medal at stake at the Basketball Arena.
Though Les Experts led from the start, they were unable to pull away from their Scandinavian opponents. With a minute remaining and his side leading by a solitary goal, Karabatic picked up a two-minute suspension, which meant France would end the game a man down, though Abalo then doubled their advantage with 42 seconds left on the clock. The Swedes were not finished yet, however, with Kim Ekdahl du Rietz firing past Omeyer to make it 22-21 with 23 seconds left.
There were 12 seconds to go when a time-out was called with the French in possession. Telling his players what they had to do to seal a second consecutive gold, Onesta said: “We don’t have time to worry about anything else. Don’t look for the ball straightaway. Just play three passes.”
When play restarted, the white-shirted Bleus followed their coach’s instructions to the letter, running the clock down to secure victory, which they celebrated as one with a triumphant jig. Then, on stepping up to the podium to collect their gold medals, the jubilant Experts struck Usain Bolt’s trademark lightning-bolt pose.
France, who now have Dinart assisting Onesta on the sidelines, then did further justice to their illustrious nickname by completing a second Olympic, European and world-title hat-trick. That continental crown was secured in Denmark in 2014 courtesy of a comprehensive 41-32 of the hosts in the final, while the 2015 world title was clinched with a 25-22 defeat of hosts Qatar, a triumph that secured their passage to Rio 2016.
Then, just as had happened to them in January 2012, France relinquished their European title, losing to Norway and thereby missing the semi-finals of the 2016 continental finals, held in Poland.
Keen to put that loss behind them, the French are now intent on rewriting Olympic history once more. Having become the first team to win men’s handball gold twice in succession, can they now make it three in a row?