By Kevin Domas
INTERVIEW – You have to go way back in time to find a competition that included the French women’s handball team, where France played without Gnonsiane Niombla.
At age 28, the center-back has seen it all. The Olympic final in Rio – check. The bronze medal at the EHF EURO 2016 – check. The second world championship title in the history of women’s handball in France, last December – she was there as well.
But then, back in September, head coach Olivier Krumbholz decided to not draft her for the Golden League. Eventually, Niombla joined the squad, but for a moment it looked like she was close to missing her first competition in the last five years.
‘That we didn’t call her, is only to send her the message that she needs to fight harder and get even better. Looking back at the last 18 months, we still have some questions with regards to her game. She needs to work more to bring something new to the team, ‘ said the coach back then.
That evening, when Gnonsiane Niombla learnt that she hadn’t made the cut and would not travel to Denmark, it felt like a ‘a slap’ to her.
“I didn’t assume that it was somehow logical being called for national team week, but you get used to it. It’s obvious that my teeth are scratching the court, now.
“Still, I’m glad to be back and I think I’m up to what people expect from me at the moment.”
Not getting the opportunity to show what you’re capable of and being able to contribute to Team France during a national team week isn’t something to take lightly, but missing a round of Golden League you can live with. With the EHF EURO on home soil at the end of this year, Niombla felt like she was on the verge of missing out on something big.
“Everybody dreams of playing such a competition, in front of families and friends. Aside from playing a EURO tournament, I’m also confident that we can win the most beautiful of all medals,” she says.
So, does she work even harder to get where she wants to be?
“Well, not harder, but different. I don’t train more, but now, I focus more on myself – more than I used to,” explains the back-court player.
In Metz, she’s in a strange position. As a former center-back, she now has duties on the right-back position, as Polish, Alexandra Zych, is still struggling to find her bearings in the new team. Playing on the ‘wrong side’ of the court (Niombla scores with her right hand) isn’t something she hadn’t done in the past. But, Niombla is pretty happy what she has delivered, thus far.
“I am occupying a position that’s not my specialty, but I do what I’m asked to. If I was left-handed, I would be more important to the team.
“But I’m here to help and it’s not like the center-back and left-back positions are filled with bad players,” she smiles.
Even if she has to cope with some challenges on the pitch, Gnonsiane Niombla does not regret for one moment having returned to her home country, after spending the past two seasons with one of Europe’s handball powerhouses.
“Joining Metz was also a decision to spend more time on the court.
“In Buchuresti, I was competing with Isabelle Gullden and Cristina Neagu. I wanted to play more and maybe in my former club I didn’t progress as much as I would have hoped for.
“I could feel it in the national team as well, because I did not have all the quick moves and automatisms of a player who spends 45-50 minutes on the court every time.”
Her situation on the pitch in Bucuresti, was one reason why Niombla’s moved back to France, to go back home, the other one.
“Some people told me that I should have stayed there (in Bucuresti ed.) or play in another foreign club. But in Buchuresti, I was lonely. The city was nice, the girls in the team were fantastic, but you can’t forget about real life.
“In Metz, I live with my boyfriend and my family is not far. And that’s something I wanted to come back to.
“Yes – I may not play my favorite position, but I gain a lot in my every-day life,” she explains.
Bucharest was not a bad experience at all, as Gnonsiane Niombla was able to immerse herself completely in handball. Games were broadcasted on major TV channels all day long, while she was asked for selfies and chats whenever she went to town. In Romania, she experienced something entirely new, something she had not seen in France before.
“I spent two seasons abroad and it feels like we have a lot to learn.
” In Romania, they like women handball more than they do men’s (handball ed.). And if it was only for this reason, I’m happy that I have played there.
“I got the opportunity to compete in the Champions League FINAL4, twice. To see so many people traveling and going crazy in the arena, to watch women’s handball – that was mad.
“In France, we are very far behind, at the moment,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to compete in what could become the biggest moment in her career – playing the EHF EURO 2018 on home soil. Just a couple of months ago, Gnonsiane Niombla felt like the event was moving away from her.
“I’m in a special situation – I could be the one who went through everything but could end up staying behind.
“But, I feel like I’m on the right track and I don’t have any regrets,” she says.
“As the competition is getting closer, things are getting more intense – it’s very scary and very exciting at the same time.”