It’s not 7 o’clock this Thursday morning when Nikola Portner picks up her phone. In the voice of the goalkeeper, no fatigue but some excitement. “It’s all a little stressful, of course, but we’re not going to complain. We will remember it all our lives. ” In the background, the conversations of a few comrades and the noise of cars. The Swiss handball team traces the route between Schaffhausen and Zurich-Kloten airport, where the plane awaits it that will take them to Cairo, Egypt.
In barely a dozen hours, she will play against Austria her first match at the 2021 World Championship. Also: her first match at the World Championship in twenty-six years. The last dates back to May 17, 1995, when it was eliminated by France in the quarter-finals of an edition played in Iceland. This is to say if the day is historic for the men of coach Michael Suter. But they had to prepare for it, let’s say, a bit in a hurry …
They learned their qualification Tuesday around 8:30 p.m., 45 hours and 30 minutes before their entry into the running. The teams from the United States and the Czech Republic had just withdrawn after becoming mini-outbreaks of Covid-19 contamination: 18 cases for one, 14 for the other. A boon for Switzerland, in second position behind North Macedonia on the reserve list.
PCR tests and isolation
The players, of course, knew this scenario existed. That they could be called up until the last minute to play substitutes in a tournament for the first time open to 32 teams, against 24 previously. “Recently, we heard that such and such a team was in isolation, that a few players from such and such another were in quarantine… So we said to ourselves that it could happen. Now the timing is short, but we were ready, ”assures Nikola Portner. Who, at that time, still does not know that the charter flight scheduled for 8 am will be two hours late due to snowfall. Enough to push the Swiss team to further accelerate the pace. Once your foot is on Egyptian soil, it will be time to join the room without delay …
The doorman of Chambéry, in the French first division, retraces the thread of events. “From December 27 to 30 and then from January 5 to 9, the Swiss team was in training camp to prepare for our next events, including qualifying matches for the Euro scheduled for March. When we parted ways on Sunday evening, officials told us to be careful, to limit contact. Just in case. And then the news broke, and everything accelerated. “
On Wednesday, the players gathered in Schaffhausen, where they all took a PCR test. While waiting for the results, they remained strictly isolated from each other, each in their room. At 7 p.m., the verdict fell: two of the 19 players summoned were positive. Two players “only”, one would be tempted to specify. Nothing could oppose it: Switzerland was going to fly to Egypt and participate in the World Handball Championships.
A little thanks to the virus? Yes. But without him, perhaps she would have already validated her qualification. The play-off she was scheduled to play against Iceland last summer has been called off due to the pandemic. To distribute its last tickets, the European Federation relied on the results of the last Euro, and the sixteenth rank of the Nati was not enough …
The craftsman of success
“At the time, it was a huge disappointment, a big frustration, because we had won the right to defend our chances,” said Nikola Portner. Coach Michael Suter goes further: “The circumstances are extremely special, but we deserved our qualification for this World Cup.”
During an emergency online mini-press conference this Wednesday, the man said he had “not slept much”, necessarily. The flow is fast, the adrenaline palpable even through the pixels of the screen. “A lot of things had to be organized, all in a very short time. Logistics is a real challenge, but one that we are happy to accept. In any case: we will have tried to prepare the team as well as possible, to allow them to concentrate on the sport. “
Arrived at the head of the national team in 2016, Michael Suter is considered the great architect of a certain revival of red handball with white cross. There was a time when Switzerland did not have to be ashamed on the international scene. Not to mention her results in the old version of the discipline (eleven and open air), she participated in ten editions of the World Cup and finished fourth twice (1954, 1993). And then suddenly, the void. Until she qualified for the 2020 European Championship, a first since 2006.
Nikola Portner, his goalkeeper since 2011, is in a good position to judge what has changed. “Before the arrival of Michael Suter, the Swiss team was, for some of the players, something that looked like a hobby. Not a priority. Sad to say, but it is the reality. There, the coach chose only men determined to invest themselves without counting for handball. Everything has become more professional, more serious, with more committed people. ”
Already a capital match
This has earned “Michi” a certain notoriety and a particular aura in German-speaking Switzerland. He was named “coach of the year” at the Swiss Sports Awards 2019 (but did not obtain it). He poses with his family in the very general public pages of the Schweizer Illustrierte. It must be said that beyond Sarine, his discipline is much more developed than in the Latin regions of the country. The best men’s team in French-speaking Switzerland, CS Chênois Genève, plays only in the second division.
Could good performances at the World Cup give a national boost to the popularity of this team sport? Possible. But Nikola Portner and her teammates will be far from favorites in a preliminary round group that includes Norway, silver medalists in 2017 and 2019, and six-time world champions France. A win against Austria could be enough to reach the main draw, however.
“This first game is the most important, against an opponent that we can look in the eye,” breathes Michael Suter. “For me, who was born in Lyon, the match against France will be very special,” notes Nikola Portner. But I don’t think about it for the moment. The only objective is to beat Austria. ”
So the nights of uncertainty, waking up long before dawn, the long hours spent in isolation, the trip in an emergency, everything will really make sense.
Program (Swiss hours)
Thursday January 14, Austria-Switzerland at 18 o’clock
Saturday January 16, Switzerland-Norway at 8:30 p.m.
Monday January 18, France-Switzerland at 18 o’clock
The three meetings are broadcast on the TV24 channel.