Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Life after Nicola Karabatic: France's next-gen handball protégés

France's Golden Generation have delivered two Olympic golds and a silver from the last three Games and the next generation coming up looks like pure gold too.
By Ken Browne

Nikola Karabatic represents France's handball 'Golden Generation' better than anyone else.

Gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, gold at the London 2012 Olympics, silver at Rio 2016, four World Championships and three European Championships titles: Karabatic has won everything there is to win in handball.

At 37 the three-time IHF player of the year may have one last dance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but he knows ‘Les Experts’ are in safe hands with France's generation next.

Karabatic always looks back on how established stars helped him while he was a young prospect, and now he's continuing the tradition.

"I remember when Luc Abalo and I were the only young players in this team of world stars," he told the EHF in 2018, "now I have taken on this role."

"I enjoy helping the newbies, supporting them on the court and in training, so that everyone feels comfortable in the team, because the atmosphere is as crucial for success as the talent." - Nikola Karabatic

At the Egypt 2021 world champs Karabatic had to watch from the couch at home, still recovering from that torn ACL, but was impressed with what he saw from France.

"There is potential and talent, there is a lot of work to do but we can achieve great stuff," he told olympics.com.

So let's take a look at some of the names set to dominate the world stage in French colours for years to come:

Dika Mem - The Difference

It's impossible not to start with Dika Mem, who feels more like the present than the future of French handball.

An explosive right winger who brings bags of goals to both club and country, Mem is the kind of player who can single-handedly win a match when he ignites.

He has been around for a while now making it hard to believe he was born in 1997 - at 19 he was already a world champion with France in 2017 - and now he's becoming a leader for both club and country.

It's all the more impressive when you consider that he followed his brothers into basketball as a kid, Mem only started playing handball at 13 and it's been a vertiginous rise ever since.

Gifted with very quick hands and feet despite being 1.94m tall (6'4), Mem has the magic to open airtight defences and invent impossible angles, and crucially steps up when it really matters, like in the 2021 Champions League final with his team 4-1 down.

In his debut season with Tremblay in France in 2015/16 he scored 93 goals in 25 games and handball heavyweights Barcelona signed him up for six seasons straight away.

They've been Spanish league champs every season since and in June 2021 Mem led Barça to that elusive 10th Champions League title bagging 93 goals (joint-second top-scorer behind Nantes' Valero Rivera on 95) along the way including six in the semi-final and two in the final.

And in the Olympic qualifying tournament in March 2021 Mem was central to France punching that ticket to Tokyo, scoring five goals against Croatia in a 30-26 win.

He turns 24 in August and is ready to step into Karabatic's shoes as a flagbearer for France, leading from the front.

For Mem, the celebrations are only starting.

Nedim Remili - In search of the "Holy Grail"

A little like Dika Mem, it feels proper to talk about Nedim Remili in the present tense rather than the future.

But unlike Mem, handball runs in the Remili family and he grew up on the side of a court - his father played his entire pro career with local club US Créteil in a southeastern Parisienne suburb, winning the top division league title with them in 1989.

At 10 a young Nedim began playing with the club his father is now a board member of, every bit a prodigy right from the beginning.

By 16 he had stretched to 1.95m (6'5) and it was clear that a big future lay in wait as top clubs clamoured for his signature. But the rising star stayed in Créteil for three seasons until he could resist the call to the mighty PSG no more, heading to the Paris giants in 2016.

A year later Remili had his international breakout moment making the home World Championships All-Star Team at right back after some incredible performances, including a six-goal top-scorer showing in the semi-finals as France went on to lift the trophy.

While the French team didn't have a dream Egypt 2021 world champs, and Remili suffered further disappointment as PSG crashed out in the semi-final of the FINAL4 to Aalborg, he's looking forward to the "Holy Grail for any sportsman."

As he told PSG's website in March:

"Unfortunately I missed the 2016 [Olympic] games because of an injury, so I hope it will not happen again. I've been working for this for several years. It's a bit of a career achievement to represent your country at the Olympics, as a sportsman, and not only as a handball player."

"I hope to experience it several times and win an Olympic medal, because I think that's the Holy Grail for any sportsman." - Nedim Remili

Elohim Prandi - 'Juice and explosiveness'

At 22 Elohim Prandi has already spent a few years showing us what he can do - both at PSG and with France at Euro 2020.

This left back can conjure goals from nowhere and come up with decisive moments in big games like his 2020/21 Champions League quarter final performance where he scored nine goals from ten shots to send defending champions Kiel crashing out and propel his PSG to the Final Four.

But Prandi has been frustrated by injuries this year, first his shoulder then an ankle problem kept him out of both the Egypt 2021 Worlds in January and the Olympic Qualifiers in March where France booked their tickets to Tokyo.

The good news for French fans is that Prandi was back in April with PSG and looks fit and fighting just weeks from the Tokyo Games.

"Against Chambéry, I felt better," he told PSG.fr on his return, "my fear was much less than before. I could think about my game and less about my ankle. I found some juice and explosiveness. That's important, because it's the basis of my game."

Scorer of goals that make you go: 'How?' Every handball fan will be happy to see him fit and firing in the Japanese capital.

For an idea of what he can do, watch goal number one below:

Dylan Nahi - The Genius

An off-the-wall once-in-a-generation insanely talented superstar-in-the-making capable of doing things you've never seen before on a handball court: Introducing Dylan Nahi.

At 21 Nahi has been at PSG for five seasons, making his debut at just 15 years of age, has been to Cologne three times at the EHF FINAL4, and just won the All-Star Best Young Player of the 2021 Champions League.

But he's trying not to pay too much attention to the personal gongs:

“I am really happy about it, as I worked hard to win this kind of awards," he tells the EHF, "but in the meantime, I try not to pay too much attention. It is a reward for my work, but it is definitely not an ending."

At the 2019 Junior Worlds Nahi was one of three players on the All-Star Team alongside goalkeeper Valentin Kieffer, and centre back Kyllian Villeminot.

And with goals like this, everyone wants to see more of Dylan Nahi on the court:

The Nantes Three

Beyond PSG, Nantes are one of the most exciting club sides to watch in European handball these days and are powered by a seemingly endless source of renewable energy that rolls off their handball talent production line.

When you look at the likes of Nicolas Tournat or Dragan Pechmalbec who both came through the Nantes Academy, and now this latest generation breaking into the first team, you really have to wonder what's in the Loire River water.

Nantes made an incredible run to the 2021 FINAL4, eventually losing out to title winners Barcelona in the semi-final and then to PSG in the third-place match, but this trio really caught the eye:

Just 20 years old, Theo Monar showed he can hold the line against Barça in the semi-final.

Then there's Thibaud Briet the 21-year-old left back who's gone from watching Nantes in the FINAL4 at the stadium back in 2018 to playing with Nantes in the LANXESS Arena in Cologne in 2021.

It was all a little too much to process.

“To think that, apart from Eduardo Gurbindo and Kiril Lazarov, all the top players in my team have been to the EHF FINAL4 only once or twice, and that, at 21, I will already play it, it blows my mind,” Briet said to the EHF.

Another 21-year-old, Baptiste Damatrin, who plays left wing is yet another French prospect learning invaluable lessons from the likes of Lazarov, Emil Nielsen and Valero Rivera.

It's no wonder that Nikola Karabatic isn't worried about the future.