Zaadi: “In 2016 we started to build something special”Article
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INTERVIEW: Winning two major medals in a few months’ time in 2016, at the Olympics and the EHF EURO, marked the rise to the very top for France, with centre back Grace Zaadi in a pivotal role

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Zaadi: “In 2016 we started to build something special”

Enjoying the time with family, taking time to cook, watching movies and series, doing some exercises: Grace Zaadi’s daily life does not differ much from that of many other handball stars during the current time off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Except maybe for one activity: learning Russian.

At home in Paris, the French national team centre back is preparing for her move to Rostov-Don this summer, when she will leave Metz Handball after 10 years.

Speaking in an EHF EURO Instagram Live interview with commentator Chris O’Reilly, Zaadi reveals that she finds the current situation “very complicated.”

“Because the situation is not the same everywhere, France is different from Russia,” Zaadi says. “I don’t know what is going to happen. Now important things are happening in the world, taking care of your health is more important than playing handball. It is a new situation that never happened before, it is strange for everybody.”

"You must have a strong character because you cannot hide yourself"

The time away from the courts allows the 26-year-old Zaadi to reflect on her outstanding national team career so far.

At age 21, she played her first major tournament at the EHF EURO 2014. While France finished fifth, Zaadi remembers that it was hard to find her feet in the national team.

“Playmaker is a very difficult position when you are young,” she says. “You have to be very strong and decide what to do. You must have a strong character because you cannot hide yourself. If the team does not play good, it can be your fault.”

Zaadi’s true breakthrough was only a matter of time

However, Zaadi’s true breakthrough was only a matter of time. After the team’s seventh-place finish at the World Championship in 2015, Olivier Krumbholz returned as head coach.

“We started to build something special, started to trust in ourselves,” says Zaadi, adding with a smile: “And we started to make some medals.”

First was the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, next was bronze at the EHF EURO 2016.

“This competition was very important for me,” Zaadi says about the European Championship in Sweden.

“At the Olympics I didn’t play a lot. But I just want to play handball to have pleasure; if I don’t have pleasure, then I don’t want to waste my time and I prefer to stop,” Zaadi says.

But at EHF EURO 2016, the centre back got her chance – and grabbed it with both hands.

Zaadi developed into a pivotal player for the team and was a key factor in France’s race to the bronze medal.

The match from that tournament which stands out for her, is the main round clash with Spain, which France won 23:22 thanks to a nine-goal outing by Allison Pineau, including the last-second winner.

“Against Spain, it was crazy. When Allison scored that last goal, it was so crazy,” Zaadi says.

France went on the meet Norway in a semi-final – which featured just 36 goals in total as the Scandinavian side won 20:16 – and ended up beating Denmark in the third-place match.

The 2016 event has been featured on the EHF EURO Facebook page and YouTube channel this week, with the final between Norway and Netherlands to be streamed in full on Thursday (16 April) at 18:00 CET.

France’s two medals in a few months’ time were only the epilogue of a much bigger story, as the team went on to win back-to-back golds at the World Championship 2017 in Germany and the home EHF EURO 2018.

“I am so proud and happy of what we did,” Zaadi says. “When we won our first gold medal in 2017 in Germany, it was something unexpected. Someone could say: ‘OK, that was lucky,’ but to make two gold medals in a row was so strong – and to do it in front of our own fans was so crazy.”

"One of the best memories of my career"

Never will Zaadi forget the final in the 14,060-capacity arena in Paris, the best-attended match in Women’s EHF EURO history.

“The final was a hot game against Russia. I later saw some videos and I remember my face when we had won it. It is one my best memories in my career,” Zaadi says about France 24:21 triumph.

Regarding France’s rise to the very top, it is inexplicable how the team failed to follow up at the World Championship 2019 in Japan.

"It was a disaster, really"

Last December, France lost to South Korea and Denmark and failed to beat Brazil as the defending champions even missed the main round.

“It was a disaster, really, a disaster for me. I wasn’t even sad because we didn’t deserve something better because we played bad,” Zaadi says.

The tournament left the French team with many questions.

“I don’t know what happened. Of course, everyone wanted to beat us. We stayed at the same level, didn’t move on, while other teams had moved forward,” says Zaadi, adding it left the French team clueless.

“You want to understand what happened, but you don’t find the solution.”

TEXT: Eric Willemsen / ehf