Great Danes and regal Russians reign supreme in the Rio 2016 handball

Denmark’s men defied all predictions as they ended the extended reign of France, defeating the outgoing handball champions 28-26 in the final on the last day of competition at Rio 2016. The previous day, the French women’s team also lost out in the final, going down 22-19 to Russia.

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In the preliminary round of the men’s handball tournament, France and Denmark were pitted against each other in Group A, finishing second and third behind Croatia, who scored victories over both future finalists, 27-24 and 29-28 respectively. Meanwhile, in what would be a dress rehearsal for the final, France got the better of Denmark 33-30. Croatia were unable to maintain their early form, exiting at the quarter-final stage courtesy of a 30-27 defeat to Poland. France, meanwhile, dispatched the host nation Brazil 34-27, and the Danes eliminated Slovenia 37-30.

Both of the semi-finals were nail-bitingly close affairs. Denmark edged a victory over the Poles, 29-28, while the French defeated Germany by the same scoreline to advance to their third consecutive Olympic final.

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Going into the final against Denmark on 21 August, the last day of action at Rio 2016, France were hot favourites to retain their title and make it three golds in a row. That feat had only been achieved once before in Olympic handball history – by the Danish women between 1996 and 2004. However, the Danish men had other ideas and pulled off one of the biggest shocks of the Games as they defeated the reigning champions 28-26 to win their first ever handball gold.

Defeat for France ended an incredible run of success. Under the guidance of Claude Onesta the French had one each and every one of the eight finals they had played over the previous 10 years, including three world championships, one European championship and two Olympics.

For their part, the Danes had not beaten their European rivals in a major competition since the 2007 Worlds, where they came out on top in the third-place match. In 2009 and 2011, they lost to France at the semi-final stage, and then suffered a resounding 41-32 defeat in the final of the 2014 European Championships, a loss that was rendered more painful by the fact that it took place on Danish soil.

However, in Rio, the Danes grasped the initiative from the start, varying their attacking play which was built around their star player Mikkel Hansen who contributed eight goals. The Danish keeper Niklas Landin excelled at times, but looked fragile at others. While he only made seven saves, they came at crucial points in the match. Overall, the French were unable to create enough meaningful attacks, while they were increasingly guilty of defensive lapses after the first period, in which their keeper Thierry Omeyer made nine saves.

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The Danes meanwhile adopted extremely positive tactics, opting to replace their keeper with an extra outfield player in order to give themselves a numerical advantage in attack. This strategy initially took the French by surprise. However, when Michaël Guigou intercepted the ball to score into an empty net and give France a 10-9 lead they seemed to have the measure of their opponents. The Danes quickly realised that their approach was not working and switched the focus onto their star goalscorer Hansen, who duly began to dismantle the French defence and trouble Omeyer. The distinctive Danish attacker, sporting beard and red bandana, showed his class with a series of long-range goals to give the Scandinavians a 15-14 advantage.

Henrik Toft Hansen then made it 17-14 and had it not been for the exceptional Omeyer, the powerful Danes would have surely extended their lead further. Instead, France then regained the initative through Nikola Karabatic, who embarked on an impressive sequence, scoring three goals and contributing two assists as the pendulum swing towards the defending champions, 19-20. Then, however, France missed a clear scoring opportunity through Luc Abalo, and Denmark seized the initiative back taking advantage of their superior speed.

This time it was their sharpshooting forward Kasper Sondergaard who stepped up to the plate, scoring three goals in six minutes to enable Denmark to open up a five-goal lead (25-20), with less than 15 minutes left on the clock. Although the French made one final push to salvage the game, closing the gap to one point, there was no way back and the Danes had their first ever Olympic title.

Winning the gold medal against a team like this is the best feeling in the world,” enthused Mikkel Hansen. “It’s a big achievement for us. It’s very satisfying, as we lost the last two finals we played against France by a big margin. So everyone is very happy and very proud. It’s incredible.”

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A resurgent Germany took the bronze thanks to a 31-25 victory over neighbours Poland in the third-place match. It was their third medal in the men’s handball, adding to the silver they won at Athens 2004, and the gold medal they clinched on home turf back in 1936.

The reigning European champions, who were spearheaded by their two wingers Uwe Gensheimer (six goals) and Tobias Reichmann (seven goals), showed again in Rio that they will be one of the main contenders at the 2017 Worlds in France.

Russian women rule supreme

Russia swept to the final of the women’s handball tournament in Rio in impressive fashion. After topping Group A with five wins out of five, including a 26-25 victory over France, they then glided past Angola in the quarter finals to set up an encounter with the reigning Olympic and world champions Norway in the last four. After an epic tussle which went into an extra period, the Russians prevailed 38-37 to reach the final.

France, who finished second in Group A behind the Russians, and whose best previous achievement had been a solitary appearance in the semi-finals at Athens 2004 where they had eventually finished fourth, had shown early signs that they would be a force in Rio, eliminating Spain 27-26 after extra time in the quarter-finals, and then dispatching a formidable Netherlands side 24-23 in the semi-finals.

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The final on 20 August at Rio’s Future Arena was a low-scoring encounter that took a while to get into gear. With the score locked at 14-14, French hopes were dealt a blow by a second-half injury to their captain Alexandra Lacrabère, who had been a key player in their passage to the final. Eventually, it was the Russians, with their swifter and more clinical attacking moves, who seized control of the match and clinched Russia’s first ever Olympic women’s handball title by a final score of 22-19.

“I think I must be the happiest woman alive right now,” said an ecstatic Anna Vyakhireva, whose five goals made her joint top scorer in the final along with French pair Siraba Dembele and Allison Pineau. “We were the better team, and we believed in ourselves. This is what I’ve been living for.”

France’s Alexandra Lacrabère was delighted to help secure her country’s first ever Olympic podium finish. “Despite the fact that we lost I am pleased. We’ve made history. It’s something I’ll remember all my life.”

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In the battle for the bronze, outgoing champions Norway secured a comfortable win over the Netherlands by a scoreline of 36-26 in a reprise of the 2015 World Championship final. Nora Mork, who was the tournament’s top scorer, contributed another seven goals, and was ably supported by her captain Stine Oftedal and by Amanda Kurtovic, each of whom scored six. The bronze was Norway’s sixth Olympic medal following two golds (2008, 2012), two silvers (1988, 1992) and another bronze (2000).

It was good to bounce back after the game against Russia, » said Norwegian right-wing Amanda Kurtovic, “There were a lot of tears after we lost the semi-final, but after that we had only one thought which was to make sure we came home with the bronze.”