A Handball Night in Paris


Watching handball at Halle George Carpentier in Paris

Watching handball at Halle George Carpentier in Paris

Team Handball News contributor, Altay Atli, was in Paris a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to meet and watch Paris St. Germain in action.  Here’s his take on that experience.

Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” takes the protagonist on a phantasmagoric journey to the literary scene of 1920’s Paris, where he meets the giants of the written word within the mesmerizing setting of the City of Lights. He goes back and forth between reality and fantasy, enjoying at every step the company of the geniuses of the craft. Paris is a city, one of the very few of its kind in the world, where the real thing can be more exciting than imagination. And these days, she can offer a dreamlike experience for handball fans too, as the local team began to shine bright on the international scene with a number of world-class players recruited this year. The author of this essay had a “handball night in Paris”, an experience with some of the best handball players of the globe that was almost as surreal as Woody Allen’s lead character’s encounters with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.

Well, actually it was two nights. A visit to the training of Paris St. Germain, the French champions of 2013-2014, on a Saturday night, and the excitement of a EHF Champions League match between the Parisians and the Spanish Naturhouse La Rioja on Sunday night, with an obligatory indulgence of Paris in autumn between the two.

Paris St. Germain is an old club with a new handball team. The soccer side of Les Rouge-et-Bleu was founded in 1970 and it is now one of the most successful teams in Europe. The club launched its handball branch in 2012 through an acquisition of another club, Paris Handball, and it managed to win the French title in its first year. With serious investment in players and infrastructure, the clubs is already aiming to join the elites of European handball. This year’s squad includes stars like Daniel Narcisse, Mikkel Hansen, Thierry Omeyer, Luc Abalo, Robert Gunnarsson, William Accambray to name a few. If you have a team like this, you aim nothing less than the European throne.

Just like Woody Allen’s character went to Montmartre to meet with the giants of literature in what was half a dream and half fantasy, we went to the Halle George Carpentier in the 13th arrondissement to see the stars of handball practicing, and to conduct an interview with Daniel Narcisse for the Turkish handball journal Hentbol Magazin. It is indeed dreamlike if you sit together with Narcisse—Olympic, World, European Champion and IHF World Handballer of the Year—over a cup of coffee before the training and chat about handball. “We want to become a club like Barcelona and Kiel,” said the talented handballer who is known among fans as Air France due to his ability to jump high and score goals over the defensive block, “we want to finish every competition we are taking part at the top rank.” Watching the training of the team, seeing how professional they are, how they can combine their individual skills into smooth and efficient team play, one can clearly see that this team has the potential to achieve its objectives.

The idea of being a team is very much in the foreground here, and Narcisse’s words clearly show the mentality behind. This is a handballer who has won everything that is out there, yet you can see how strong the fire is burning in him. “It is about living the moment,” says he, “the moment of victory, and sharing it with your teammates on the field. The titles, the medals, they are all a part of the adventure that you want to live. And not only them, but also preparing for the competitions, this is an emotionally intensive process you want to live through with your teammates, and it is as a team that you are achieving your goals.” Narcisse reminds us “every competition is different, and there is always surprise, you always come across new things, and this is what adds beauty to our sports.” After talking to Narcisse, you understand how champions are made: it is about never having enough, keeping on working, keeping on winning, never giving up, and having the same excitement and same energy every time you step on the field. This is indeed an adventure, one that begins anew with every competition, with every match, and even every training session; an adventure that one goes through together with his or her mates.

A brief chat with goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer before the training started has been the icing on the cake. The French national goalie, who is also known as Titi, is one of the coolest players on the court, he is as cold as ice when he is expecting a shot. But when he saves the shot, he knows how to celebrate, sharing his victory with the bench and the spectators, with an explosive fist raised to the sky and a war cry, maintaining energy and the concentration at top level, sharing it with teammates and proving once again who is the best between the goal posts.

The next evening, we were back in the George Carpentier, to watch Paris St. Germain against Naturhouse La Rioja in a Champions League match. The two thousand spectators who filled stands enjoyed handball at its best. The Spaniards tried hard to keep the balance on the field, but the Parisians, led by the brilliant playmaking performance of the super-Dane, Mikkel Hansen, did not give them a chance. Hansen, Narcisse and Co. worked as a merciless scoring machine and at times when this machine slowed down, Titi was solid in goal, preventing the Spanish side from closing the gap on the scoreboard. At one point during the second half the gap had widened to twelve goals, and the coach, Philippe Gardent, threw in the youngsters to gave them to opportunity to gain experience. When the referee blew the final whistle it was 32:25 for the Parisians.

The quality of handball was accompanied by spectator entertainment in the hall, which made the whole thing a real fun experience for those who came to support to team. Songs, performances and NBA-like accompaniments like cheerleading and welcoming the players to the court one by one with flashing lights and fireworks definitely add to the mood in the hall. And of course the food and drinks; but here it was slightly different from the experience in the United States. When you are watching sports in Paris, you can actually get crêpes to munch on during the game!

Talking to Paris St Germain’s world-class players, listening to their thoughts on the meaning of handball, and watching them in action has truly been an unforgettable experience. Paris has a strong team, big ideals, and the potential to reach its objectives. When you are in Paris, there is something as exciting as climbing the Eiffel Tower or strolling through the Champs-Élyseés, that you can do: Watch world class handball; handball à la parisienne!