Feature: In the sign of big "H"Article
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Despite celebrating sixty this year, the EHF Cup Finals hosts from Nantes are just in their toddler´s years in European handball.

Feature: In the sign of big "H"

Handball in Nantes, the hosting city of the premier edition of the EHF Cup Finals, has always been an interesting story. The story, which has been written under the sign of the letter “H” and not only because of the name of the most dynamic sport art of the world.

“H” like a History in making, “H” like a Hope to fulfill, “H” like a Honour in hearts when dressed in the club´s uniform...

The town's main club, the HBCN (Handball Club of Nantes) was born in 1953, but never made it to the 1st division until 2009.

Before that, the best years had been at the end of the '90, when the club accessed the fourth division, and even participated in games qualifying for the third divisions, but lost all of them. The HBCN then quickly sank down and went all the way back to Nationale 3, the equivalent of the fifth division.

But at the beginning of the new millennium, handball rose again, and thanks to the arrival of former professional players (such as Bruno Pagès, once goalkeeper in Montpellier) the club made the steps forward very quickly.

Nantes promoted to the second division and then to the first division, with the addition of another former Montpellier player, Frédéric Dole, who still plays with Nantes.

At this point, Nantes was enjoying a huge success locally, so much that the ancient arena (Gymnase Mongin) had to be expanded, and the club even had to go and play at the much bigger Palais des Sports de Beaulieu (5000 seats), which is its home these days.

Gael Pelletier, the club´s president, gave his team a lot of credits by having a lot of advertisement in local media, so that the Nantes team could count on a very strong local fan-base.

"When I arrived in Nantes, I knew something great could be done here, but a lot of changes had to be done. The arrival of Thierry Anti, with his past and experience, changed a lot of things," Dole explained.

"When you've got a coach with such an experience, it's easier to sign good players. And then, the more good results you get, the more good players want to play with the club," he added.

The word spread quickly and the national handball authorities were really happy to have a club in this major French city. Nantes welcomed twice the French league cup final four, and made its first toddler’s steps in the EHF Cup last year.

Last summer, Nantes recruited one of the most famous Spanish handball players in history Alberto Entrerrios, alongside his national teammate Jorge Maqueda. They were not the first Spanish players to sign for the “H” club though, since Valero Rivera, the son of Spain's head-coach, arrived a year earlier, proving to be a very successful transfer since he immediately became one of the league's best scorer.

Alberto Entrerrios felt like at home very quickly.

"All went really quickly and really well. The team is really young in terms of history in European competitions, but we're very strong, because we're playing as a team.

"The squad is very well balanced, handball-wise or generation-wise. The older players get along with the youngsters very well," Entrerrios said.

But before them, a handful of players had written a part of the HBC history. Two Danish players, Marrott and Nielsen, were the first foreigners to ever play in the French championship back in the mid-fifties.

The Hungarian Attila Borsos also played in Nantes. More recently, some international players are still playing in Nantes, since Marouène Maggaiez and Mahmoud Gharbi play for Tunisia and Gunnar Jonsson plays for Iceland.

This squad is now steered by Thierry Anti, who previously coached Paris and Créteil and who's been in charge of Nantes for five years now.

Nantes still thoroughly keeps an eye on forming new players. Obryan Nyateu, a regular fixture in Nantes' squad, was formed here, while Thierry Anti recruited Gunnar Jonsson and signed Stefan Vujić, two young players that he hopes to develop in the near future.

It is him who put the club in the spotlight, but nothing would have ever been possible without the help of Stephane Moualek who, back in the beginning of the 2000's, came as a player and quickly added some much needed seriousness and professionalism into the club.

The pinnacle of the club's short European story came last December, when the city was chosen to organise the EHF Cup Finals in May.

Gael Pelletier was indeed first to recognise that the club would be nothing without the dozens of persons that give their time to the club each day.

"This nomination is above all a reward for the 120 enthusiastic volunteers of the club who are working daily to build the history of our club with a big `H`. It is the icing on the cake for the club's 60th anniversary," he stressed.

TEXT: Kevin Domas / br