Fresh blood for a golden future

FEATURE: A look at how the quality in the France side always remains the same, through the cycle of stalwarts retiring and top talents being added

France’s men’s teams have been a dominant force in the world of handball since their first EHF EURO trophy in 2006. Since then, they have taken four world titles, another two European championship trophies, and two Olympic gold medals. But the golden generation that enjoyed these successes is barely represented in the current EHF EURO 2018 squad. France are in a state of transition, but they are still incredibly successful.

The key is the intense youth programme with academies all over the country. Since 2014, the international Youth and Junior competitions have been imprinted by new generations of French players: In 2014 and 2016, ‘Les Bleus’ became U18 EHF EURO champions. In 2015 and 2017, the same squads became U19 world champions, and in 2015, France took their first ever U21 world title.

“The hierarchy in this team never breaks”

Some of these players, such as Melvyn Richardson and Kyllian Villeminot (both playing for EHF Champions League side Montpellier), who were named MVP at the 2015 and 2017 Youth World Championships, have a future in the men’s team ahead. There are some from those squads, who already knock on the door of the men’s team, such as Edouard Kempf and goalkeeper Julien Meyer; some that stand very close to the door like PSG left wing Dylan Nahi; and those already part of the team, such as Dika Mem.

“When a 19-year-old guy signs a contract with FC Barcelona and is number one in his position in the Champions League, then you can guess how important such a player like Dika is for our national team,” says Kentin Mahe. At the age of 26, Mahe is already one of the middle-aged stars for the world champions. Three years ago, at the World Championship in Qatar, Mahe had the role players such as Mem and Nedim Remili (22) have now.

“The hierarchy in this team never breaks. It is always the older guys, who lead the young guns. For me, the national team had always been an education – and it still is, though it is my role now to educate others,” says Mahe. “It is incredible that we have so many top talents. The next successful years shall be guaranteed for the French side, maybe even until the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.”

“If you can all play above a certain line, the level is high”

Besides Mem, who was also part of France’s bronze-medal winning side at the 2017 U21 World Championship in Algeria, Remili is a perfect example of a successful approach to development. The son of former Creteil star Kamel Remili made it to Paris Saint-Germain in 2016 at the age of 20, right after he played his first Men’s EHF EURO. In 2017, he became world champion, was a finalist in the EHF Champions League and was selected as the All-Star Team right back for the World Championship – and later the EHF Champions League.

“I am still young, though I have some experience now,” Remili says: “In the national team and in the club, I am still learning every day. And I hope that I always will be there, if my coaches call me.”

Like Remili, most of the French players are signed by Champions League participants – something that is a great asset for the national team, according to Remili: “Facing Europe’s elite every week is a boost of experience for all of us, mainly the young ones. At national team events, we can pay off.

“An EHF EURO tournament is long with many tough matches, so you need to have a deep squad to be successful. Therefore, all players are needed, young and old ones. And if you can all play above a certain line, the level is high.”

Thanks to these qualities, Remili believes France are among the favourites in Croatia, but does not think they are the favourites: “Denmark, Germany, Spain, Croatia and even Norway, though we have beaten them already, have the same chances as us,” the left-handed shooter says prior to Tuesday’s last preliminary round match against Belarus in Porec, where France aim to keep their clean record.

In the 33:26 victory against Austria on Sunday, the young and new players were given their chances – with praise from their head coach Didier Dinart: “It is never easy for youngsters to play those games with as much intensity as they did against Norway. But I loved their approach, all of them were very committed. They played seriously and gave us the opportunity to try new things, and that may be helpful for the rest of the competition.”

written by Björn Pazen / cg