Handball: Bobby's giants strike but fall short

Great Britain 15 France 44: Five years since a TV recruitment drive for players GB men's brave Olympic debut ends in heavy defeat

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was Bobby's big night. Ever since Bobby White forsook the goalkeeping duties at Newport Pagnell FC (presumably in the Inter Service Station League, with fixtures against Ferrybridge, Scotch Corner and Charnock Richard), he had dreamed of the moment he would get to lead the Great Britain men's handball team into the London 2012 Olympic arena.

That time came shortly before 7.30pm last night. The 6,500 crowd packed into this compact metal structure threatened to raise the roof as the GB goalkeeper marched his team-mates out on court. "GB!" they roared. "GB! GB!"

It was probably not like this when Captain Bobby was keeping goal for Newport Pagnell, even in those big derbies against Watford Gap and Toddington.

The trouble about dreams, though, is that reality can intrude in rude-awakening fashion. It is one thing to soak up the high-octane experience of marching in the opening ceremony as a home Olympian, and to run out on court last night in your pristine Team GB kit. It is quite another proposition when the match "throws-off", to use the handball parlance, and you find yourself up against the reigning world and Olympic champions.

Amid the euphoria and romance of Bobby and his boys making it on to the big stage, there was the task of coping with the formidable French. It was only five years ago that White sat watching BBC Breakfast News and heard Sir Steve Redgrave talking about a UK Sport talent search to find recruits for the home Olympic handball team. "He said you had to be over 6ft 3in, under the age of 25 and had to have played sport to a fairly high level using your hands," he recalled.

The recruitment drive was called Sporting Giants but when it came to the start of their Olympic schedule last night White and his team-mates were firmly in the David role, facing a Gallic Goliath. In their five-year build-up, the Brits had managed just the two victories, against Bulgaria and Italy. In their final warm-up match last week, against Hungary, they were beaten 44-12.

Given France's global supremacy in a high-speed, high-impact sport that has been described as a hybrid of basketball and football, there was always the real possibility of the scratch British team suffering the kind of fate that befell Bon Accord when they met Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup in 1885 (36-0), or the hapless all-comers when they came up against Meadowlark Lemon and the rest of the all-conquering Harlem Globetrotters in the 1970s television cartoon series.

No one was more aware of the size of the task than White. He plays in the elite French league for Valence. "If we keep the gap to 10 or 12 goals we will be very happy with that," he said before the off, but that goal looked a little pessimistic side as the 29-year-old and his colleagues opened in inspired fashion.

They struck the first scoring blow after one minute 45 seconds of the opening half – there are two halves of 30 minutes – right-back Steven Larsson cutting inside and angling a shot past Thierry Omeyer in the French goal. Larsson was born in Scarborough but raised in Sweden.

He is one of several players in the Great Britain team of Anglo-Scandinavian stock. After the French had levelled 19 seconds later, it was another of the dual nationals who regained the lead for Team GB.

Robin Garnham was born and raised in Sweden. His father, Stuart, played football for Wolverhampton Wanderers but was transferred to Karlstad BK in the 1970s. A roofer by trade, Garnham Jnr made it 2-1 with 3min 22sec on the clock.

Sadly, it was Jack Nicholson time for Team GB. It was as good as it was going to get for them. Valiantly though the home side fought, the superior class of the French steadily told. By half-time, the Brits were 21-7 down. By full-time, the damage was 44-15.

At least Bobby and his boys managed to swerve an unwanted place in the record books. The record margin of defeat in Olympic handball remains 34 – the 44-10 loss inflicted on Kuwait by Yugoslavia in 1980.

Still, Great Britain is finally on the Olympic handball map – with both a men's team and a women's squad, the latter having put up a fight before losing 31-19 to Montenegro on Saturday night. "Legacy is a big deal for us," White said. "We really want to get handball to take off in this country. Hopefully, the exposure can raise the profile of the sport and get more people playing."

White himself knew nothing of the game until he responded to the Sporting Giants appeal. "I was looking it up on Google and Wikipedia the night before my trial," he confessed.