Today it would be almost unthinkable, but in the first three editions of the Women’s EHF EURO (1994 1996 and 1998), one powerhouse of European handball was missing: France. Then the French federation made the decision to sign up the coach who had steered Metz to several domestic trophies and titles.
In 1998, Metz-born Olivier Krumbholz took over the team – and with a Midas-like touch, turned them into World Championship finalists within a year.
“1999 in Lillehammer, it was such an exciting moment, we had two extra times, even the Norwegian king was there and we played so well though we lost,” Krumbholz remembers.
This final at Norway against Norway was not only the first World Championship gold medal for the Scandinavians, but also the starting point for France to become a top side in global women’s handball, steered by Krumbholz.
In 2002, they won their first medal (bronze) at the EHF EURO. One year later, they became world champions for the first time in Zagreb, turning an incredible match against Hungary around after extra time, That was followed by two more World Championship silver medals in 2009 against Russia and 2011 against Norway.
“In 2011, we did not have any chance against Norway, as two back-court players, including Allison Pineau, were missing,” says Olivier Krumbholz today.
A new era
Two years after the 2011 final in São Paolo, Krumbholz and the French federation parted ways. Alain Portes succeeded Krumbholz as the national team’s head coach, while Krumbholz in 2014 became one of the directors for the Men’s World Championship 2017 in France.
But this job did not last that long – after missing the semi-finals of the World Championship 2015 in Denmark, Portes had to resign after three major tournaments with no medal, finishing in fifth, sixth and seventh place.
Right before the qualification tournaments in Metz for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games “King Midas” returned, bringing with him his winning ways. Under Krumbholz, the French women made it to Rio, and won their first ever Olympic medal after losing a defence battle against Russia in the final.
The medal boosted the French side and in 2017, Krumbholz steered “Les Bleues” back to the winners’ podium of a world championship.
“This triumph in Germany was something very, very special, as for the first time in a big and competitive match, we beat Norway,” he says.
At the EHF EURO 2018 France had another masterclass tournament, finally winning on home ground after beating Russia in a thrilling final in Paris.
Krumbholz was on a high, but fell to a low in 2019, when France missed the main round at the World Championship in Japan.
“We had big problems, we had a bad result and we really had a problem in our federation. So it was really difficult for us, but I am more happy now that now we made it to the final in Herning. This was so important,” he says.
A happy coach makes a happy team
Krumbholz has rejuvenated a team which is in a state of transition. In contrast to their opponents in Sunday’s final, Norway, France have already booked their ticket to the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. And having this and the spot in the final in mind, the 62-year-old French coach seems completely relaxed prior to tomorrow’s big clash.
“I am in a perfect shape at the moment, and I am sure I will be happy on Sunday, I am in the right mood for a fight with Norway in the final. I am really excited. And no matter what the result will be, I will smile after the final. I hope for a French victory,” Krumbholz says.
After France’s easy victory over Croatia, thanks to Krumbholz’s defence tactics in the semi-final, the players say they saw an emotional change in their coach.
“It’s so good to see Olivier like this. Olivier is like the father of the 20 girls in this team – or grandfather. We really like when Olivier is like this – he’s not all the time like this, but when he’s like this we are really happy,” said line player Béatrice Edwige.
Left back Kalidiatou Niakate fully agrees.
“Papa Olivier really has a strong input on the team and the whole of French women’s handball; only with him France won medals. He can be such a funny guy, but he can also be very hard with us, if we don’t train like he wants us to train,” she reveals.
The team say the efforts of the whole technical and medical staff are a major part of their success, although Krumbholz jokes: “Of course the staff is great, but in the end, I make the difference.”
In his fourth individual final with Norway he expects the Scandinavians to be in the better position, answering the question about the favourites for the title like a shot from a pistol.
“Norway of course. They have their full squad, we miss some players. Of course, a final is always open before the start, but for me Norway are the favourites, even if we go to the maximum. They always play on the best level, they have excellent players, they have Stine Oftedal, the best in the world, when it comes to one-against-one actions. She is the key player we have to stop,” he says.
But even if his team lose against Norway this time, “Midas Krumbholz” has his next objective in sight.
“If we do not manage to beat them here, then we do it at the Olympic Games at Tokyo,” he concludes.