FEATURE : France enter the Women’s EHF EURO 2018 on home ground as world champions, and for centre back Grace Zaadi it is clear that France’s success story is not over yet
Zaadi ready to ‘sacrifice everything’ for gold at EHF EURO 2018
Having been named all-star centre back at the Women’s World Championship 2017, Grace Zaadi was one of the French key players in the team’s golden journey to the very top of the podium.
However, almost three months later, the focus has shifted and the 24-year-old, who plays for Metz Handball, is looking towards the Women’s EHF EURO 2018 which will take place in France from 29 November to 16 December 2018.
“I'm looking forward to it, I'm so looking forward to it,” she says with a huge smile on her face.
“Last year, I went to see the French men’s national team play at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on the final weekend of the World Championship.
“And now, I can see us playing there. I can already imagine the arena all painted in blue. That'll be gorgeous. It will be huge!”
As the tournament hosts, France do not have to go through the hardship of qualification – rounds 3 and 4 are played from 21 to 25 March. Instead, ten friendly matches are scheduled over the coming months, with a double-header against Brazil being the first on 22 and 25 March.
“I think that playing these matches with less pressure will give us the opportunity to work well before the EURO. We still have to progress and get better in many areas of the game and these matches will be perfect to do so,” says Zaadi.
At the same time, ‘Les Bleues’ are not afraid of losing their competitive edge in the lead-up to the December championship.
“The EURO is such an important thing that, friendly match or not, we'll still give it 100 per cent. This EURO will be a great event to experience together, especially since it could be the last major competition for some of us.
“We want to win gold at home and we are ready to make every sacrifice it takes to do so,” says Zaadi.
Golden girls in the spotlight
Since the World Championship gold in December, the public image of the French women’s national team has changed drastically.
The 3,000 tickets for the first match against Brazil in Bayonne's Lauga Arena were snapped up in a few days, and there are only a few left for the second match against Brazil in Pau, in an arena that seats 4,500.
Everybody wants to see France’s golden girls.
“When we returned to France, we realised how big a thing our world championship title is, says Zaadi.
“For me, it was difficult to realise this before coming home. When you meet again with your loved ones and your family and you see how happy they are for you, that's when you tell yourself: ‘Girls, we are world champions!”
The sudden limelight women’s handball is enjoying in France, also positively influences the French national league.
The twelfth match day, the first after the World Championship, the six matches attracted more than a record 16,000 fans in total.
“The passion we encounter everywhere is unbelievable,” says Zaadi, one of the six Metz Handball players crowned in Germany.
“After the World Championship, the first match Metz played took place near Lyon. After the final whistle, we stayed for several minutes on the court signing autographs and taking pictures with kids. There are more and more people in the arenas – that's great!”
The Women’s EHF EURO 2018 will be the second major women’s handball competition France hosts following the World Championship 2007.
“I remember the flyer for the competition, which had a high-heel on it, but that's about it,” grins Zaadi, who was 14 years old at the time.
“I came to handball without thinking too much about it, I just wanted to have fun with my friends. In 2007, I was playing handball for fun and to have a good time. It was only afterwards that I wanted to be a professional.”
TEXT: Kevin Domas / ts
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