Pantheras rhymes with Guerreras in FleuryArticle
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FIRST-HAND INSIGHT: Kevin Domas takes a look at the strong Spanish influence in Fleury Loiret Handball and how the club has gone from strength to strength in recent years

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Pantheras rhymes with Guerreras in Fleury

In the summer of 2012, Frédéric Bougeant sat on the bench of Fleury Loiret Handball for the first time. After eleven seasons coaching Le Havre, he had been signed by what was to become the most ambitious women’s handball club in France. With just a Challenge Cup under their belt at the time, it seems like a miracle to see the team on the verge to qualifying for the Women’s EHF Champions League Main Round at the first attempt.

If you take a closer look to this meteoric rise, you cannot miss the fact that Fleury has relied heavily on Spanish players for the last few seasons. The French league has always been a "home away from home" for Spaniards, due to the geographic proximity and handball has always been quite successful there, for men and women.

Valencia won the Champions League in 1997 and reached the final in 2003, while Itxako made it to the final, with a future Fleury player within the ranks.

Fred Bougeant, the coach, always had a special link with those girls especially since he speaks Spanish fluently. But in Fleury, from 2013, he has never had less than five Spaniards in his squad.

First to join the project was goalkeeper Darly Zoqbi de Paula, a Brazilian who took Spanish citizenship not long ago and who has now become the leader of the pack. She knew Fred Bougeant from Le Havre and was one of the first one to jump on board in the summer of 2013. The likes of Martha Mangué, Marta Lopez Herrero and Beatriz Fernandez quickly followed.

"It’s easier to convince players from abroad to play in your team if you sign other players of the same nationality," analyses Zoqbi, who caught the attention of many in her astonishing performance in Round 2, which lead to her inclusion in the ‘3 Stars’.

“In some clubs, you'll have players from all around Europe, and some of them will have trouble learning the language or adapting culturally. It's obviously easier to integrate when you've got people helping you out."

Integration is everyday life is of course a big thing, but playing with people you know already makes things go quicker on the court as well. If you look at the numbers, four of the five Spanish girls in this season's Fleury roster were in the squad last December when Spain reached the final of the EHF EURO.

Summer 2014 saw the opportunity for Fleury to sign yet another Guerrera (nickname of the Spanish national team). Alexandrina Barbosa came from Thüringer HC and immediately proved to be the main offensive asset of the team and the only one who had played the Champions League prior to this season, reaching the final with Itxako in 2011.

Convincing her was easy with five of her international teammates already in place alongside a Spanish-speaking coach. For her first season in France, she and her teammates reached the Cup Winners’ Cup Final, proof that the project was taking shape.

The situation at Fleury draws parallels to Hypo Niederösterreich, who had a partnership with the Brazilian federation and welcomed a number of their players to Austria between 2011 and 2014. The main difference being that, in Fleury, the club is looking at a long-term plan.

One of the risks by signing so many players from a same country is seeing these girls forming a clan within the team. But like in a fairy tale, you see none of this at Fleury. Timeouts are spoken in both languages, without anybody taking any offence.

“We don't want to stay in the corner, just the five of us by ourselves,” explains Darly Zoqbi, who speaks fluent French. “The official language is French here, even though all the French girls understand Fred when he speaks in Spanish.”

At the time, Fred Bougeant talked about the Spanish girls signing as "opportunities". You can't help but think that he had a long-term plan and a brilliant one as well. Certainly, the momentum is hard to maintain, and their current form could end at any time, but the progression of the past three seasons makes one believe the plan is set to work.

The team’s excellent impression in their debut season is due largely to support from the whole club. Two years ago, Fleury was playing in a small 800-capacity arena while they're now selling out a 3,000-seater in nearby Orleans.

Club manager Anthony Tahar is underlined by Fred Bougeant as being "the real conductor". Mind you, volunteers work all night before each match in Europe’s elite club competition to get the arena ready, only to take everything apart again after the show.

Such dedication forces respect from everyone, and it incites the players on the court to make the extra effort for those taking care of them.

Bougeant is already looking beyond this season: "The club has structured itself in the past few years and winning trophies proved to everyone we were heading in the right direction. But we don't fool ourselves, we know the hardest part is to maintain ourselves at this level and that's what we want to do.”

Kevin Domas is a 29-year-old handball journalist who has been passionate about the sport from an early age. After playing and refereeing, he is now a journalist and media manager for the French handball website, among others.

Kevin has been a regular contributor to for four years, a website that allows him to combine traditional journalism with a more modern approach using social networks and mobile journalism.

TEXT: Kevin Domas / cor