France became the first men’s handball team to defend their Olympic title when their 22-21 win consigned Sweden to a fourth Games final defeat on Sunday.
It was France’s second triumph having clinched the title in Beijing four years ago and their third Olympic medal after bagging bronze in 1992.
Sweden, competing in their first Games since 2000 when they finished second for a third straight Olympics, had no answer to the world champions’ superiority in all departments.
Former world player of the year Thierry “Titi” Omeyer, the match-winner in the semi-final against eventual bronze medalists Croatia, was again on form in goal, producing a string of saves to frustrate Sweden.
“We played so well in defense all tournament, even if we didn’t bring our best all-round game,” talisman Nikola Karabatic said. “We didn’t give our opponents any options and that helped Titi to make a lot of saves.”
France also beat Sweden 29-26 in the group stages and although the final was similarly close, the gold medalists stayed ahead once they crept into the lead in the first half thanks to a series of coolly converted penalties by Michael Guigou.
In the second half, four deftly-taken goals by live-wire Luc Abalo and three thunderous shots by Daniel Narcisse in the first 10 minutes kept them ahead, the stocky Frenchman adding one more toward the end as Sweden scrapped to force extra-time.
Sweden hit back with four goals in the final six minutes, but Abalo scored to take France two clear with just under 60 seconds remaining, his team playing out the closing stages with five men following Nikola Karabatic’s two-minute suspension.
“I had a huge surge of adrenaline, then I focused because I knew at that moment it would have been an important goal, and that was that,” Abalo said, unable to stop beaming broadly.
Karabatic, who praised Abalo’s “magic” moment, said he was livid to have been sent to the bench for a defensive foul.
“I was really angry with the referee, but now we have the gold medal,” the former world player of the year said, clutching a can of beer in one hand and roses in the other.
Guigou top-scored for France with five goals, while Sweden’s Niclas Ekberg’s six strikes lifted him one above Croatia’s Ivan Cupic as the Olympic tournament’s Golden Arm with 50 goals, not that he had any idea.
“I didn’t know that. Really? That’s awesome,” Ekberg said. “I’m so proud of the guys and all the things we’ve achieved together.”
Croatia coasted to a 33-26 victory over a fatigued Hungary in the bronze-medal match, Cupic netting eight goals.