With two Olympic gold medals, three European Championship titles and six World Championship titles, the men's French handball team have the best track record in the world. Nicknamed "Les Experts", they reached the sport's summit by winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing on 24 August 2008, and have remained there ever since. Their sights are currently set on qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, as they continue down the path to victory.
The road was long, but France became the best handball team in the world, winning the largest ever number of titles through a series of unprecedented achievements. The team that scaled to the peak of the world's rankings didn't even take part in the Olympic Games from the sport's introduction onto the Olympic programme, at Munich 1972, up to, and including, Seoul 1988.
But everything began to change for "Les Bleus" with the arrival of coach Daniel Costantini in the mid-1980s. He turned the national team around by introducing new methods and expectations, as well as focusing on a young generation of rising global stars, including Jackson Richardson, in particular.
Many monikers reflect team's road to success
France finally qualified for the Olympic Games at Barcelona 1992, where their journey and joie de vivre drew particular attention. They began with a prestigious victory over Spain in their first-ever Olympic match and steadily progressed to the semi-finals. Ahead of the game, they all dyed their hair blond! Defeated by Sweden, Denis Lathoud, Frédéric Volle, Stéphane Stoecklin, Philippe Gardent, Jackson Richardson and the rest of the team took home the bronze medal after beating Iceland in the third-place match. The French public dubbed them "Les Bronzés", a play on words meaning both "bronze medallists" and "suntanned".
Runners-up in the 1993 World Championship held in Sweden, the team won France's first World Championship in a team sport in Reykjavik on 21 May 1995, defeating Croatia 23-19 in the final. Their unbridled spirit and extravagant haircuts earned them a new nickname: "Les Barjots", French slang for "The Nutters". Their winning streak ended at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, where they finished fourth. Talented new players would soon move up the ranks. Meanwhile, Costantini led the team to a second World Championship in 2001 with a 28-25 overtime victory against Sweden, which sent the home crowd into raptures at the Palais Omnisports in Paris-Bercy. Their nickname changed once more – this time to "Les Costauds", or "The Tough Guys".
Claude Onesta came on board as their new coach. Under him, France became the best in the world. They were a consistent presence atop podiums in both the World and European Championships, but an Olympic medal remained elusive; they placed sixth at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 and then suffered defeat to Russia in the quarter-finals at Athens 2004, where Richardson was the French delegation's flagbearer. "Les Bleus" focused on a new generation of talented players, including goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer and players Nikola Karabatic, Daniel Narcisse, Luc Abalo, Didier Dinart, Olivier Girault, Mikael Guigou, Jérôme Fernandez, Guillaume Gille and Bertrand Gille, among others. They won the European Championship for the first time in Switzerland in 2006.
"Les Experts" trample everyone in their path
At the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, captain Girault led his team-mates down a glorious path to victory. Back at the Olympic Village, the team's events were the common link drawing the entire French delegation together; the handballers played throughout the Games' entire duration, while other athletes mostly competed in one-day competitions. This was why, a few hours before the Closing Ceremony on 24 August, several hundred of their fellow athletes and delegation members filled the stands of the National Indoor Stadium to form an extremely noisy, boisterous fan base in support of their team during the final against Iceland. Omeyer made several saves, while an impenetrable defence was led by the burly Dinart. Karabatic, Gille, Abalo and Narcisse were relentless in attack, and France won 28-23, without even breaking a sweat.
"We reached the highest level of handball in the world. It's magic. We feel like we did our duty. For me, personally, this was the only title I hadn't won. It's an amazing victory. The team played spectacularly during the Games. We had the match in the bag early on because we took them seriously. We won easily," observed Dinart. "I'm happy. I relish it, because there had been previous disappointments, such as in Sydney or Athens. It is the victory of sacrifice. The team deserved the title," added Girault. With their first Olympic gold medal came a new nickname, which is still in effect 11 years later: "Les Experts".
"Les Experts" were world champions for the third time in 2009 and European champions again in 2010. They made history by holding all three major handball titles at the same time. This continued with their fourth World Championship win, at the 2011 finals in Sweden, where they beat Denmark. After a setback in January 2012 at the European Championship in Serbia, where they were eliminated in the second round, they bounced back eight months later, becoming the first handball team to retain an Olympic title.
Composed of 10 gold medallists from the previous Games in Beijing, the team were defeated in the first round by Iceland, 29-30. They managed to squeak past Spain in the quarter-finals, when a young William Accambray scored in the match's final moments for a 23-22 win. After defeating Croatia in the semi-final, the French faced off against Sweden, maintaining the lead throughout the final, even though the score was close: 22-21. While standing on the podium in London, they mimicked Usain Bolt's famous dab.
Their conquests continued: a third European Championship in 2014, followed by a fifth gold medal at the World Championship in 2015. Once again, they held all the major titles at once. At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, "Les Experts" reached the final for the third time in a row, and were strong favourites against Denmark. Led by a fired-up Mikkel Hansen, however, the Danes proved insurmountable and won the match 28-26.
A sixth world title on the road to Tokyo 2020
Didier Dinart replaced Claude Onesta as the coach of the French team, leading "Les Experts" to an unprecedented sixth World Championship in 2017 in Qatar. During the period from 2001 to 2017, Thierry Omeyer — who was named the best goalkeeper of all time by the International Handball Federation (IHF) — won 10 gold medals (European, world, Olympic), while Nikola Karabatic, Michaël Guigou, Daniel Narcisse and Jérome Fernandez claimed nine. "Les Experts" became the best squad in the history of world handball.
And what now? France were bronze medallists at the 2018 European Championship, but at the 2019 World Championship, held in January in Germany and Denmark, they missed out on directly qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. That honour went to Denmark, who won the World Championship for the very first time after 22 attempts. France did secure their place in the 2020 European Championship – the first that will feature 24 teams from across the continent – to be jointly hosted by Austria, Germany and Norway from 10 to 26 January. The 2020 European Championship winner will also qualify for the Olympic Games. If Denmark win, the Olympic spot will go to the losing finalists. If France do not win the 2020 European Championship, their third-place win at the 2019 World Championship will make them eligible to take part in one of three Olympic qualifying tournaments scheduled for April 2020, where the two best teams will book their spot at the Tokyo Games.
What will the French team's new nickname be if their road to victory continues in 2020?