At eight o’clock on Tuesday morning, the German handball players were already on the bus to Kraków, from where the plane took off to Gdansk shortly afterwards. There the selection of the German Handball Federation (DHB) will play their quarter-finals against the French on Wednesday (8.30 p.m., ZDF), by far the most difficult test at this World Cup.
In addition to the 26:28 defeat against the Norwegians, after five wins in five games in the tournament so far, they also had some news with them. For the sick Paul Drux, who is on the mend and was also on the plane to Gdansk, the national coach has Alfred Gislason nominated the Erlangen pivot Tim Zechel. The defensively strong player is also expected in Gdansk on Tuesday and will strengthen the young German team.
However, the defeat against the Scandinavians was not a big deal, the quarter-finals had already been reached. Nevertheless, she gave the German team the supposedly toughest chunk in the knockout round, the Olympic champion France. The French had secured first place in their group in their final game of the main round with a 28-26 win against Spain. The Spaniards, who have been in the narrow circle of title contenders at major tournaments for years, would certainly not have been easy opponents either. But the German selection wanted to avoid the French. At least that’s the impression you had to get when you talked to the coach or the players.
“All positions are occupied twice, they are also world class in the breadth,” says Gislason about the French
“In my opinion, France are the best team in the world with the best individual players,” Christoph Steinert said. goalkeeper Andrew Wolff was initially one of the few who could warm to the French as opponents. Before the Norway game, when it was not yet clear who it was against, he had described the Spaniards as “our kryptonite” – the bright green rock that robs the invincible comic hero Superman of his strength. The goalkeeper echoed that statement after the defeat, adding: “The French are more or less invincible. Now the coach has to give us a few things so that we can prove otherwise.”
Alfred Gislason will do his best. The day before the game against Norway, the Icelander said he had started studying the video of the potential opponent: “I’ve looked at both possible opponents.” However, this task turned out to be particularly difficult: “Of course I know that France is one of the big favorites for the title. All positions are filled twice, they are also world class in general.” A performance like Monday evening won’t be enough, the national coach believes: “We have to play faster in defense and attack, so many things have to work better if we want to have a chance.”
The 63-year-old is a coach who’s seen pretty much everything in handball, who likes to send subtle messages to his staff or opponents with his public statements. However, he doesn’t have to cobble together the role of favorites for the French: three-time Olympic champion, record world champion with six titles, three-time European champion. The French have also always understood how to seamlessly and adequately replace top performers who are retiring due to age. Which is why they have been among the best in the world for years, which of course also applies to the current squad.
He is a mixture of internationally experienced top players such as Dika Mem, Ludovic Fabregas and Melvyn Richardson, all of whom are under contract with Champions League winners Barcelona. And up-and-coming players like Thibaud Briet, a 2.05 meter giant with enormous throwing power from the backcourt. Or Dylan Nahi, left winger with a powerful jump. In addition, there is a first-class goalkeeping duo in Vincent Gérard and Rémi Desbonnet. The team is led by Nikola Karabatic and Kentin Mahé, two particularly savvy veterans. At 38, Karabatic is a little past his prime, but he still drives the French game and sets the pace. His wealth of experience is irreplaceable, especially in tricky situations. Mahé gives structure to the positional game in attack.
Germany’s playmaker Juri Knorr suspects what’s in store for him and his colleagues, he speaks almost in awe of the great old man of world handball: “For me, Karabatic is the best player of all time, by far.”
“Perhaps the French underestimate us a bit,” hopes Jannik Kohlbacher
The German team is by no means completely hopeless in this comparison, as they proved during the tournament, especially against the Norwegians – despite the defeat. “If we can manage a stable defense with Andi Wolff as support and use our chances better, then we can beat any opponent,” said captain Johannes Golla. Of course, the Germans have to have a strong day, “and maybe they underestimate us a bit,” hopes Jannik Kohlbacher. But a surprise is quite conceivable with the performances shown so far.
Goalkeeper Wolff has found his way back to world class, Golla delivers reliably at the top level, and playmaker Knorr is well on his way into this elite circle. The opponents didn’t miss a thing either, as Norway’s Petter Overby revealed after the game: “We wanted to make things difficult for Juri, and we managed that quite well in the second half.” Young players like Lukas Mertens and Julian Köster play a strong tournament and stand for the future, veterans like Patrick Groetzki, Kohlbacher and Kai Häfner are team pillars. The team has also proven that it is absolutely fit for the World Cup in terms of width: players like Rune Dahmke, Djibril M’Bengue or Luca Witzke fit in smoothly. In addition, everyone, without exception, raves about a special spirit and cohesion in the team.
There is not much that this young team lacks to enter the circle of the world’s best. Maybe it’s just a win against one of the greats in an important competition. There would be a dazzling opportunity for that on Wednesday evening.