Reuters - Fri, 29 Jan 14:30:00 2010
All-conquering France believe an unprecedented handball treble is within their grasp after overcoming a patchy start to reach the European Championship semi-finals in Austria.
France, the World and Olympic champions, face Beijing runners-up Iceland on Saturday for a place in the final, while Croatia meet the tournament's surprise package Poland.
The French were held to draws by Spain and Hungary in the preliminary group stage but found their form in the second group stage and clinched a berth in the last four with Thursday's 29-24 win over Poland.
"We are a team and we know we can rely on a few exceptional players to lift us when we need it but from now on everybody must make a contribution," French goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer said after a string of superb saves against the Poles.
"We have everything it takes to go all the way and if we play at our best level we should beat Iceland," captain Jerome Fernandez said.
Should France go on to win the 16-team tournament, they will become the first nation to hold the Olympic, World and European titles at the same time.
Although it trails traditional team sports like soccer and rugby in France, handball has won many new fans since the national team won the World Championship in 1995 in Iceland.
The dynamic, physical and fast-flowing game with six outfield players and a goalkeeper, also attracts huge crowds in Germany, who won a haul of medals in the past but have underperformed in Austria.
Croatia, who were beaten by France in the World Championship final on home soil last year, also have high hopes of winning their first European gold medal after beating defending champions Denmark 27-23 and knocking them out of the tournament.
"We played our best match of the tournament against the Danes and we need to repeat that performance against Poland to reach the final," Croatia's coach Lino Cervar said.
"Our fantastic fans carried us to the semi-finals and we know they will be like an extra man on the court again."