Handball: Qatar to defy France in World Cup final
It is the handball World Cup final no one predicted and brings together one of the sport`s oldest powers against its newest.
Doha: It is the handball World Cup final no one predicted and brings together one of the sport`s oldest powers against its newest.
On Sunday evening when pre-tournament favourites France take on hosts Qatar, it will be the unlikeliest final the sport has seen.
Whoever triumphs, history will be made.
If France win, they will be the first team to have won the World title five times; If Qatar take the gold trophy, they will be the first non-European side to do so.
France last won in 2011 and are the current European and Olympic champions. It is their sixth appearance in a handball World Cup final.
Qatar, meanwhile, are only playing their fifth world championships, beginning in 2003 when they achieved their previous best finish of 16th.
France have stealthily cruised through the tournament, winning four of their five qualifying matches, remaining unbeaten and knocking out world champions Spain in the semi-finals.
Qatar, who lost to the Spanish in the group matches, have largely been centre stage.
They have played every game in the purpose-built Lusail stadium, a showcase arena designed to show that Qatar can host world cups.
Their opponents in the knockout stages have complained about referee decisions going in the hosts` favour and, most damningly, they have been criticised for drafting in a number of foreign players.
The team`s Spanish coach Valero Rivera remains sensitive to the issue, batting constant questions away by saying he will "only talk about handball".
Spanish-born Borja Vidal, told AFP that the issue of nationality is irrelevant when the players are on the court.
"When I play, I feel like a handball player," he said.
"How do I feel about representing Qatar? You know it is a very big responsibility to represent one country. I feel very good in this country and this nationality."
And while the French team has been built up over a number of years under the expert hand of coach Claude Onesta, Rivera has built the Qatari team equally skilfully but quickly.
Both have constructed formidable squads.
The French rely on the guile of central back Nikola Karabatic, the athleticism of Daniel Narcisse and the goals of Michael Guigou.
Qatar look to Rafael Capote, Zarko Markovic and Kamalaldin Mallash for their success.
The one thing the two sides have in common is that their star player is the goalkeeper.
France have cult hero -- and surely the only handball player to have been the subject of a New York Times profile -- Thierry "Titi" Omeyer between the sticks.
His performance in the semi-final, saving four second half penalties alone and a string of other magnificent stops, was possibly the standout performance of the tournament.
His counterpart, home-crowd favourite Danijel Saric has won four man-of-the-match awards during the world cup, setting the tone in the very first seconds of Qatar`s opening match against Brazil.
It is possible that whichever of these two plays best on Sunday ends up determining who wins the World Cup.