Since they faced each other in the 2016 Olympic Games final, France and Denmark have collected one world championship title apiece and also played for the EHF EURO 2018 bronze medal. At the EHF EURO 2020 however, both sides were knocked out in the preliminary round.
Neither side earned a win until round three, and both knew before their final encounters that they would not proceed, making their victories much more bitter than sweet. Both teams will settle for their lowest ranking in history at the EHF EURO.
In every previous edition of the EHF EURO, the current Olympic or world champion has made the main round, meaning Denmark's 13th-place finish is the worst ever for a reigning title holder.
France may not have been as strong a favourite this time around as current world and Olympic title holders Denmark, but they have not missed a semi-final at a major international championship since the EHF EURO 2016 – and even then, ranked just outside the top four.
Their eliminations before even the main round can only be classed as an upset – but what are the reasons for these shock early exits?
Denmark: absences on the wings
At the World Championship 2019, when 2018 EHF Player of the Year Casper Mortensen suffered an injury in the second match and had to rest, Magnus Landin was there to step into his place as starting left wing.
The younger brother of captain Niklas Landin rose to the occasion magnificently, becoming a key part of Denmark’s clean sweep on the way to the title.
In 2020, with Mortensen yet to return to full fitness and Magnus Landin also injured, Denmark had to look elsewhere for a left wing. Top scorer of the EHF Cup 2018/19, Magnus Bramming, was brought in – however, he played just 70 minutes. Usually a back but for Denmark primarily a defensive specialist, Henrik Mollgaard was employed on the left wing.
On the right, Lasse Svan was also injured, leaving Hans Lindberg a big task as Johan Hansen was rarely used.
These were crucial absences on the wings – a position where Denmark usually has two reliable and high-scoring options, both from position and on fast breaks, on each side.
An uphill psychological battle
Denmark’s EHF EURO 2020 campaign opened with an upset – a one-goal loss to Iceland. All credit goes to Iceland for a great performance, after a strong game from both teams, rather than any significant misstep from Denmark.
Round one nerves may have got the better of Denmark, but it was nothing like what was to come. In the second clash, against Hungary, Denmark’s problems worsened. They immediately fell behind and as they fought to equalise, the team seemed to crack.
Although they took the upper hand in the final minutes and had the chance for the win, Denmark could not secure it. Where they have been able to perform in crunch moments in the past, Denmark could not muster the mental strength needed in the last minutes to clinch the victory.
They seemed to lack the confidence of the past, uncertain due to the struggles that had come in Malmö Arena before that critical moment. And so their round two match ended with a draw that meant Denmark no longer controlled their own fate, and Hungary would later decide it.
Less spectacle between the posts
Niklas Landin and Jannick Green form one of the finest national team goalkeeping duos in the world. When Landin does not perform his best, Green has always done a superb job of having an impact as his replacement.
When Landin is at his best, he gives huge confidence to the team – and is capable of igniting the Danish fans to create an atmosphere that makes them very difficult to play against.
At the EHF EURO 2020, they had some bright moments, but Landin and Green were not as decisive as they have been for Denmark at other events.
That is not to say they were weak – simply that the two have so often been there to nullify any glitches in the defence, and in Malmö, they could not.
France have the Olympics on their minds
Playing a bad EHF EURO when the Olympics are just around the corner has become a bad habit for France. After 2012 and 2016, you can now add 2020 to the list of the EHF EUROs during which the EHF EURO 2014 winners failed to show up.
The French media was focused on Tokyo 2020 during the preparation for EHF EURO 2020 and even the coaches seemed, when they talked, to be focused on the summer rather than the immediate future, forgetting that there was a competition in January and that winning it was the shortest way to Japan.
France still have a shot at Olympic qualification, but missing out on the main round and a potential EURO medal has not helped.
They didn’t learn tactical lessons
You can be surprised by an opponent once, but not twice. But that’s exactly what happened to France against Portugal.
After losing in March 2019 to Portugal in the EHF EURO qualifiers, France should have learnt that you have to play with intensity against this particular team. But Didier Dinart’s players did exactly the contrary, delivering a sloppy version of their handball.
France were not helped, throughout the competition, by lacklustre individual performances. Vincent Gerard, Dika Mem and Romain Lagarde were all meant to be their key players, but they did not deliver the expected performances.
A lack of mental strength
It is almost mandatory for a team to go through bad times in a competition. It is almost impossible to have the perfect game, every game. But how you deal with your bad moments define what you can achieve in an EHF EURO.
But for that, you need to have conviction and to be certain of what you do. That is exactly what France lacked.
Whenever they conceded three goals in a row, some players would already have their heads down, looking as if they had lost the game already. The contrast with Iceland and Norway was obvious, and ultimately, meant that the 2014 champions were on an early plane home.
Olympic and world champions since 1992, and their final ranking at the next EHF EURO final tournaments:
Olympic Games 1992: EUN – silver, EHF EURO 1994 (as Russia)
World Championship 1993: Russia – silver, EHF EURO 1994
World Championship 1995: France – seventh, EHF EURO 1996
Olympic Games 1996: Croatia – eighth, EHF EURO 1998
World Championship 1997: Russia – fourth, EHF EURO 1998
World Championship 1999: Sweden – gold, EHF EURO 2000
Olympic Games 2000: Russia – silver, EHF EURO 2000
World Championship 2001: France – sixth, EHF EURO 2002
World Championship 2003: Croatia – fourth, EHF EURO 2004
Olympic Games 2004: Croatia – fourth, EHF EURO 2006
World Championship 2005: Spain – silver, EHF EURO 2006
World Championship 2007: Germany – fourth, EHF EURO 2008
Olympic Games 2008: France – gold, EHF EURO 2010
World Championship 2009: France – gold, EHF EURO 2010
World Championship 2011: France – 11th, EHF EURO 2012
Olympic Games 2012: France – gold, EHF EURO 2014
World Championship 2013: Spain – bronze, EHF EURO 2014
World Championship 2015: France – fifth, EHF EURO 2016
Olympic Games 2016: Denmark – out after EHF EURO 2020 preliminary round
World Championship 2017: France – bronze medal at EHF EURO 2018
World Championship 2019: Denmark - out after EHF EURO 2020 preliminary round