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History repeating: again, and again, and again

EHF / Björn Pazen

Is it the day of revenge at Budapest, or will the same teams make it to the finals as at the World Championship 2021 in Egypt?

Just as in Cairo almost exactly a year ago, Spain will play Denmark and France Sweden in the semi-finals of a major tournament. In 2021, Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Sweden were the finalists and Denmark defended their 2019 title, while Spain beat France to take the bronze medal.

Seven months later, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, three of those teams were in the semi-finals again. Again, Denmark beat Spain, while France had a tough nut to crack to stop Egypt. In the end, France took their third Olympic gold medal (after 2008 and 2012) by beating Denmark to take revenge for the Rio 2016 Olympic final, and Spain won bronze, ahead of Egypt and Sweden.

Going back to the EHF EURO 2018 – guess what? Again, Spain, Sweden, France and Denmark were in the semis, but this time in a different constellation. Spain beat France, Sweden defeated Denmark after extra-time.

In the 2018 final, the ‘Hispanos’ won their first ever EHF EURO trophy, Sweden silver and France took bronze – and Denmark still have to wait for their next EHF EURO medal after silver on home ground in 2014. In the event of two victories at Budapest, Denmark could level with France to have three EHF EURO trophies on their tally.

The only complete exception to history repeating again was the EHF EURO 2020 – when Denmark and France sensationally missed the main round, and co-hosts Sweden missed the semi-finals From the “regular quartet” only Spain were among the top four, winning the final against Croatia. Norway took bronze, beating Slovenia.

The 2022 semi-final quartet combine all EHF EURO titles since 1994, except three (two for Germany, one for Russia). These four teams also combine all EHF EURO trophies since 2006, except for the German triumph in Poland in 2016.

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Since 2002, record champions Sweden have not won a gold medal.

“Twenty years ago, I was looking at my idols, something started to grow in me then, that one day I could be part of those games. Now this dream come true for me and my team to be here, but we focus on one game at the time. Then we see if it will be an anniversary or not, but I am sure we will see a great game in any case,” says Swedish line player Max Darj. Of course, his coach Glenn Solberg hopes to have the same result as last year.

French assistant coach Erick Mathe does not have positive memories of the duel in Cairo.  

“Sweden were better than us in all departments – defence, attack, goalkeeping. This defeat was a real bad souvenir we got there,” Mathe says. His side can level with Sweden on four trophies, if they win both matches at Budapest.

And Spain? They can become the second team after Sweden (1998-2002) to win the treble.

But what makes those teams such strong? The first key is experience and consistency. The core of the Danish, Spanish and French teams have played together for years, in Spain’s case as long as a decade.

While Sweden had a full transition in the last years, Denmark, Spain and France constantly added some fresh blood to their golden generations, and those talents are already world-class – like Dane Mathias Gidsel, Frenchman Melvyn Richardson or Spaniard Aleix Gómez.

From the tactical point of view, they all follow the same principle: a tough and movable defence trying to cause turnovers to start counter-attacks, and they all have fast wings. A key differentiator for Spain is their 5-1 defence system, at which they are the best in the world.

Another key is the fact that almost all of their key players are signed by EHF Champions League or European League clubs. Those weekly international challenges are highly important for development, mainly for young players. And all four of them have their traditional handball school including extensive talent programmes, proved particularly by the Maison de Handball in France and their scouting and talent system all over the country.

All these facts prove that it is not by accident that history is again repeating at Budapest – except for the fact that Sweden and France were extremely lucky on their road to the semi-finals, with last-second victories in their final main round matches. But to earn this luck, you have to work hard before, and this quartet have shown that commitment time and time again.

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