By Chris O’Reilly
As the reigning world and European champions, France come into next week’s Women’s IHF World Championship as one of the genuine favourites to go all the way in Japan.
In a team full of incredible athleticism and talent, Estelle Nze Minko stood out as one of the very best players in France’s run to the EHF EURO title last year on home court and is expected to play a vital role in December. Despite her rise in stock over the past year, the 28-year-old knows a repeat individual performance is not a given.
“I feel my teammates and coaches have confidence in me, but it doesn’t change much for me, because I start from zero in every competition. I’m not sure what I’ve done already will help me very much.
“When you do it only once, you might think it was luck or something, so if I want to play like that again I’ll have to work twice as hard.”
Nze Minko’s performances last year led to her move to EHF Champions League winners Györ and her quick integration into the star-studded squad has provided a confidence boost.
“I was surprised, in a good way, with how I’ve settled into the team. I thought I’d be more stressed by everything in this club, but I felt a very warm welcome from everyone.
“I’m used to training with the best players every single day, so I guess that makes me better and I’m looking forward to seeing how I do against national teams I’ve played against before.”
A tournament for a real squad
France arrived in Japan earlier this week to step up preparations for the championship, including taking part in the Japan Cup. The preparation tournament in Tokyo is also used as an Olympic test event, but all focus remains on the task at hand, not on Tokyo 2020, which France have already qualified for as EHF EURO 2018 champions.
Arriving in Japan so early could prove to be a sound move for France as they’ll have longer to recover from what Nze Minko described as “an exhausting journey” and acclimatise to Japan.
The squad itself looks very close to full strength and even the absences of Siraba Dembele (pregnant), Cleopatra Darleaux (maternity leave) and Laura Glauser (knee injury) does not worry the back court star, who believes that a deep and balanced squad will deliver once again.
“Of course, the missing players are very experienced, but the young players need to go through their first competition at some point and now it’s their time to prove themselves.
“We have very good players. I cannot even say we have a first seven on the court, because after 10 minutes it changes, then changes again, which is very important in such a physically demanding tournament, where you’ll have to play 10 matches to win.”
“We know what we want to do”
France began their preparation by beating a tired Brazilian side 33:22 in Thursday’s opening Japan Cup match, but Nze Minko knows it will be a different challenge come 1 December when they meet in their preliminary round group, arguably the toughest group in the championship with Denmark, South Korea, Germany and Australia also in the mix.
With only three teams from six going through to the main round and results against the rest of that top three carrying over, there is no time to ease your way into the tournament.
“We have this reputation that we always lose the first game and then get stronger as the competition goes on, but now we know that losing any game is going to kill us with the points system.
“But if you want to win a competition, you have to win all the games and I guess it doesn’t matter if we have to do it from the very start, we know what we want to do in this competition.”
France know what is required of them heading into their first title defence and Nze Minko is not shy about stating what they wish to take home with them on 16 December.
“We haven’t talked about it yet, but as you can imagine, when you win the competition before, you want to keep it, because anything less than gold would be a disappointment somehow.
“We want to stay on top, but we realise how hard it will be because anyone can win this competition.”
Listen to the full audio interview with Estelle Nze Minko as part of the (Un)informed Handball Hour’s World Championship preview podcast on Monday 25 November.