French team celebrate as they become first to retain Olympic men's handball gold
Sunday, 12 August 2012
August 12 - With ear-splitting roars of "Allez les Blues" cascading round the arena, France made history today by becoming the first country to retain the Olympic men's handball gold, holding off underdogs Sweden by a single goal to round off one of the sporting gems of London 2012.
The final was switched from the Copper Box to the 12,000-capacity Basketball Arena to cope with the sheer demand for tickets, especially from French fans who revere their handball team even more than rugby players and belted out their surnames when the line-ups were introduced.
The French, who won gold in Beijing four years ago and are also reigning world champions, were rarely behind, but survived a late Scandinavian comeback to edge home 22-21 in a cacophony of sound that almost took the roof off to cement their place as the finest team of all time.
The victory, sound tracked by a continuous din of music, clapping and cheering, was built on a strong defence and the exploits in attack of Michaël Guigou (pictured above, left) who scored five goals.
For Sweden, it was the fourth time they have taken second spot on the Olympic podium as their wait for the elusive gold medal continues even though Niklas Ekberg scored six goals to take his tally for the tournament to 50 as top scorer.
Croatia took the bronze after earlier dispatching Hungary.
Few sports have captured the imagination at London 2012 quite like handball, which was surely the rock n' roll event of the Games.
Quick, cunning, clever, physical, tactical and so watchable, it has been an undoubted triumph, capped by an atmospheric final that could not have been more tense or tight.
It was nip and tuck all the way – Sweden's cause helped early on by keeper Mattias Andersson who saved four of France's first six efforts.
As the match progressed, time after time the Swedes pegged back France's advantage, but were never quite able to overhaul the defending champions.
With four minutes to go and leading 21-19, the French controversially went down to six men when their star player Nikola Karabatić received a two-minute penalty.
The French coach Claude Onesta was yellow-carded in all the drama and Sweden, who had trailed 10-8 at half-time, tried desperately to seize the initiative.
With 90 seconds left on the clock, they had managed to claw back the score to 22-21 but, with the ball in their possession, France took a tactical timeout to calm things down and held on to write their place in the history books.
The final whistle was greeted as much with a mixture of relief and elation.
Onesta's side had a woeful campaign at January's European Championship in Serbia, where they failed to reach the semi-finals, and were desperate to restore their status.
"We were superb," said Onesta.
"The players were outstanding and the fans incredible.
"What a magnificent game, atmosphere and occasion.
"It is something I will never forget for the rest of my life.
"To win it four years ago was fantastic but to do it in London in the next Olympics was even better.
"I thought my team played a hard, strong game both in defence and attack.
"We had our plan and it came off.
"We have been improving throughout the competition and we managed to put together a good performance in the final.
"I feel very happy and proud.
"I think the difference was our experience.
"We have a very experienced team which knows how to win the big occasions and we did it again.
"We are going to celebrate the way you should celebrate winning Olympic gold.
"Every French fan, and all the others too, are invited!
"They made it such a fantastic occasion."
Sweden were not expected to advance much further than the quarter-finals but punched above their weight and pushed the French to the limit.
They came so close to snatching gold but coach Staffan Olsson thought his team, who won the second half 13-12, might even have done better.
"We did not attack the way we can," he said.
"Defensively we were strong but we could have scored more goals.
"But we have to accept the defeat and think about the positive things even though it is hard right now to do that.
"This is life, and we have to keep smiling and celebrate doing so well at these Olympics.
"It has been a wonderful two weeks with the team giving me everything.
"The players were so tired but nearly snatched the tie.
"I cannot ask for any more from them."