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Germany versus France in the Quarterfinals

Nikola Karabatić stood in front of the bus that was supposed to take the French to Kraków, his arms full of bags. He calmly stowed away his luggage and found time for a chat. Is it uncomfortable to have to leave the hotel in Katowice? The travel stress? Karabatić shrugged: “That’s right.” Katowice, Kraków, then Stockholm. For a handball player who has experienced everything, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference. The 38-year-old Frenchman shows his teammates how to focus on the moment, even in everyday situations.

For more than 20 years he has been holding out the bones; He does not derive special rights from experience and success – he stows his and other people’s luggage in the compartments provided just like the novices in the squad. And a conversation with German journalists on the bus is not a punishment for him, but an opportunity to greet old acquaintances. In splendid German, by the way. From 2005 to 2009 Karabatić played for THW Kiel.

He exudes professionalism. The entire national team, indeed the entire association, embodies the incredible achievements of the past decades – when the French meet Germany on Wednesday (8.30 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the handball world championship and on ZDF), it will be their 16th quarter-final participation in a World Cup one after the other. In 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2017 they crowned themselves with the title.

They’re not popular, but they’re good

In view of the flood of medals, it is hardly surprising that the attitude of French handball players sometimes oscillates from self-confident to arrogant. Karabatić and Co. are not popular in the handball scene. They’re way too good for that. “When you play for France, the reigning Olympic champions, you strive for gold, no matter who is on the pitch,” said Dika Mem of “Handballwoche”. There is an intimate hostility towards the Danes, who recently challenged them for the position of the world’s best team twice. The German Handball Federation is generously praised, but not perceived as a first-class opponent.

The French hunger for titles is handed down from generation to generation; Karabatić is the messenger; Dika Mem just emphasized how big his part in the 2021 Olympic victory was. At the association’s headquarters in the “House of Handball” in Créteil near Paris, talents that other nations look at with envy have been created for a long time. There have often been swansongs to the old guard around Karabatić, his brother Luka (34), playmaker Kentin Mahé (31) and goalkeeper Vincent Gerard (36). But they remained indispensable, and then came professionals like Dika Mem, Ludovic Fabregas and Dylan Nahi, all in their mid-twenties and already playing for big clubs.

The French association does an excellent job of integrating children of immigrant parents like Dika Mem. The left-hander has developed into an exceptional player. The entire squad is almost universally signed to Champions League clubs from Barcelona to Kielce to Paris Saint-Germain. And in Thibaud Briet, 23, from HBC Nantes, the French have long since found their Julian Köster at this tournament.

The question remains as to what share trainer Guillaume Gille has in the success. The 46-year-old former professional from HSV Hamburg took over from Didier Dinart after the messed up EM 2020. By then his assistant, Gille rose through the ranks without having previously coached a club. Gille seems unassuming, the players rarely talk about him, and it cannot be said that he has given the team a signature.

He can rely on the free play of forces, because when things get shaky, Mem climbs up and throws the ball into the goal, or Mahé cooperates with the two strong pivots. Sometimes, however, and this could be the Germans’ chance, the French overdo it with freestyle handball. Then everyone does what they want. However, that was only seen in the opening game against Poland at this World Cup – in which they caught up in time to win.

The French then strolled through the main round and did only what was necessary in the 28:26 against Spain on Sunday. Kentin Mahé, who used to play in Dormagen, Gummersbach, Hamburg and Flensburg, judged that his team did not work their way through the World Cup confidently, but seriously. With a smile he said he wanted Germany in the final. It will not come to that now. And you have to say it so clearly: Reaching the semi-finals against these French on Friday would be a big surprise for the German team.

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