COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Taking up where their female counterparts left off, Denmark’s men’s handball team hope to finally win Olympic gold next month.
Inspired by a European title win, after years of near-misses in major competitions, the men believe their turn has come.
Denmark have won Olympic handball gold at the last three Games — with the women’s team.
The men could only watch, having failed to qualify for all three Games. In other major competitions they developed a semi-final jinx, losing at that stage to Germany in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 European championships and to Poland at the 2007 world championships.
They finally broke the spell in January, taking European gold after getting their revenge on the German team in the semi-finals. Now they are after a first Olympic medal.
The men will carry a nation’s hopes after the women’s team, which is being rebuilt after a change of generation, failed to qualify for Beijing.
“We are going for the gold,” coach Ulrik Wilbek told Reuters. “Since we won the European championship and since we have a good team, we would be disappointed if we don’t get any medals.”
Denmark looked in great shape last month as they routed African champions and fellow Olympic Group B competitors Egypt 38-27 and 34-21 in their first two training matches.
“We have a really, really strong team, if we can avoid injuries,” said Wilbek, the most successful Danish coach of all time. He led the women’s team to European, world and Olympic golds in the 1990s before starting to coach the men in 2005.
Handball is big in Denmark, especially in Jutland. The European championship final attracted 2.2 million television viewers in a country of 5.4 million.
Denmark has the strongest women’s league in the world, a fact which some say hampers the development of the national team as homegrown athletes have to compete for club places with highly talented, imported players.
Sailing, rowing and badminton are the only other sports to have provided gold for Denmark at the last four Olympic Games but Danes have got over the disappointment of seeing the demise of their women’s handball team and have faith in the men’s side.
Egyptian team manager Mahmoud Mahmoud said Denmark’s strength was their combination game, along with having the best goalkeeper in the world in Kasper Hvidt.
“The Danish team is very strong, very fast and very disciplined,” Mahmoud told Reuters, adding that their opponents would need a good defense and to be fast on the break if they were to beat them.
Denmark will also meet Germany, Iceland, Russia and Korea in Group B in Beijing. Wilbek sees Germany as Denmark’s top group rivals, with defending champions Croatia and France the teams to watch in the other group.
Danish national team veteran Lars Kristiansen said Denmark and Croatia were the top favorites but other teams could get in the mix.
“France is incredibly good, and Spain could beat us on a good day,” said Kristiansen, top scorer at the European championships and dubbed the “Energy Minister” by his team mates for his pep talks.
“Germany are always damned lucky and they are playing better, so they could also be difficult,” added Kristiansen, who plays for German club SG Flensburg-Handewitt.
Another well-loved player in Denmark is Joachim Boldsen, 30, a portly centre who stands 1.87 meters tall and weighs 100 kg.
Nicknamed “The Tractor,” Boldsen drinks and has a reputation for being outspoken to the point of irreverence. He did, though, vow to quit smoking ahead of the Games.
Left winger Kristiansen, who has scored more than 1,100 goals for Denmark in more than 250 matches, is looking to Beijing for the crowning achievement of his career.
“Winning the Olympics must be the ultimate victory any sportsman can achieve,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon