Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look back at France’s men's handball team who won everything possible during the first decades of the 21st century.
How it started
It all started with a nickname: Les Barjots, the Crazies.
France's men's handball team were not among the best teams to grace the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. Yet, the team coached by Daniel Costantini managed to win the bronze medal, beating Iceland in the last game. Some players celebrated by painting their hair while some shaved it off entirely.
First nicknamed “les bronzés” (a play on words in French, bronzé meaning tanned and bronze being the metal), they soon became known as Les Barjots because of their behaviour off the court. The group, led by Jackson Richardson, Philippe Gardent, Gregory Anquetil or Frédéric Volle, loved to party as much as to play the game - an eccentricity that Costantini allowed as long as they were 100 per cent fit for the matches.
"Yes, true, we are crazy. But crazy about work first and foremost," explained one of the players, Yohann Delattre.
Barcelona was just the start of their medal haul. A year later they won silver in the World Championship, with the Russian Federation taking home the gold. But in 1995 they finally managed to reach the top of the podium and emerged as world champions - something no other French team had ever done in history.
When the Barjots era ended with another world title in 2001, the team became known by another nickname - "les Costauds", the Strong ones. This victory was also coach Costantini's swansong.
The biggest win
Over the last two decades, with coach Claude Onesta now at the helm, France have won three European Championships (2006, 2010, 2014), five World Championships (2001, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2017) and two Olympic Games (2008, 2012).
France had finally become the team to beat.
Among their treasured trophies, the Olympic gold medal in 2008 was particularly significant following a 16-year wait since their last Olympic medal in 1992. Prior to their 2008 victory, they were defeated in 1996 by Croatia in the quarter-finals, and then by Yugoslavia in 2000 and the Russian Federation in 2004.
At Beijing 2008, the French team were impressive, winning all of their games relatively easily (other than a draw with Poland in their final group game), including against the Russian Federation and Croatia in the knock-out stage.
Nikola Karabatic, Daniel Narcisse and Bertrand Gille were certainly at their peak, as was goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer. Their victory was symbolic: they beat Iceland in the final, 28-23 - an enormous difference at that level - and earned themselves a new nickname... The Experts.
2008 Getty Images
The key players
Players like Jérôme Fernandez, Thierry Omeyer and Didier Dinart helped the team to earn three of the World Championships. Others like Grégory Anquetil, Luc Abalo and Michaël Guigou were also key in many of the victories.
However, two players are known to have changed the face of France handball, maybe a little more than the others.
The first was Jackson Richardson.
The player from La Réunion was part of Les Barjots, and the symbol of the team. He was known for his partying and was also the most creative player in handball during the 1990s. As well as inventing completely new shots, he was famous for being a ball stealer and above all, refusing to lose. Named the best player of the world in 1995, he earned 417 caps with France, scoring 775 goals. His son, Melvyn, is now part of the French national team.
Next is Nikola Karabatic.
Often regarded as the best player in handball history, he made his debut with France in 2002 and has continued playing for the team ever since, apart from an absence of a few months caused by an injury. Karabatic has been voted the world's best player on three occasions (2007, 2014, 2016) and is a two-time Olympic champion (2008, 2012), four-time World Champion (2009, 2011, 2015, 2017) and three-time European champion (2006, 2010, 2014). His leadership skills, his capacity to raise his game in any circumstances and his goalscoring prowess are completely unique.
To this day, he is considered a huge asset for the national team.
"Players have a lot of pressure but I’m confident because there is strong potential, many qualities and talent in almost every position. But we may need a big result to kick-start this generation, since a lot of players have never won a title with the national team", the Paris-SG player told Tokyo2020.org.
2012 Getty Images
What happened next?
At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, France reached the final but lost to Denmark, a team that have become formidable rivals to the French with the emergence of Mikkel Hansen. While at the time it looked like a transfer of power, Les Bleus rebounded by winning the 2017 World Championships.
However, since then its been hard to come by podium finishes. After a disastrous Euro 2020, Guillaume Gille was named head coach and at the World Championships in 2021, France finished a promising fourth. Yet, Les Bleus still haven't qualified for Tokyo. Failing to do so would be earth-shattering in the world of handball as the last time France didn't qualify was 1988.
“We are back among the best teams and beating big teams. However, there’s a lot of work do to as we have realised what our weaknesses are. At the Olympic qualifying tournament we will need to be at our best to beat opponents we have beaten and seen at this World Championship,” a confident Guillaume Gille explained.
Follow the two-time Olympic gold medallist handball player as he returns to his home island of Guadeloupe to see his lasting legacy.