If we take only a distracted glance, the handball Final Four that HBC Nantes is preparing to play (with Paris-Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Aalborg) on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 June 2021, in Cologne, would be almost routine for the Nantes club. Eighth-finalist in the Champions League in 2017, quarter-finalist in 2019 and even finalist in 2018, “the H” has become, in recent seasons, a stronghold of European handball.
This season again, the Nantes have brought down the Poles of Kielce and, even more strongly, the Hungarians of Veszprem, candidates for the final victory. “We might have been a bit lucky in our journey when we reached the Final Four in 2018. But to be able to return there this year is incredible”, enthuses, at 38, the iconic captain of the HBC, Rock Feliho.
Since he announced at the beginning of the week that he would retire at the end of the season, after eleven years spent in the purple jersey, the European adventure of HBC Nantes has taken on a symbolic new. Like him, a generation of players is preparing to leave the club, including the Spanish international Eduardo Gurbindo or the former “Experts” Olivier Nyokas and Cyril Dumoulin, all three arrived in 2016. “Whatever the result of this Final Four, for us, it’s the best way to finish”, ensures the latter, who has kept the goals of the France team 81 times.
“A great adventure”
At the time of their arrival, HBC Nantes had never yet experienced the Champions League, but were already seeing far. In 2008, the club reached the first division, then, very quickly, opened its record with two EHF cup finals (the “small” European Cup) in 2013 and 2016, a League Cup in 2015 , a Coupe de France in 2017.
For a player like Olivier Nyokas, already a French international when he was signed, joining Nantes five years ago was a gamble. “I am proud of the dimension the club has taken today, to have participated in its development alongside players such as Dominik Klein, Kiril Lazarov, Cyril Dumoulin”, remembers the left-back, world champion in 2017.
The semi-final, Saturday against the great Barça (at 6 p.m.), Nyokas already knows that he will not play it, he who lost his place in the group due to injuries and the choices of the Spanish coach Alberto Entrerrios. However, he will be traveling to Germany. “We have good young people, with whom I have a very good relationship. It’s a great adventure, which I live a bit by proxy. And after five years here, I feel like I am responsible for the club’s project. “
When an avalanche of injuries reduced the workforce at the start of the season, reinforcements from the efficient Nantes training center did not fail to seize their opportunity. So much so that Théo Monar (20 years old), Lucas de la Bretèche (19 years old) or even left-back Thibaud Briet (21 years old), one of the club’s great hopes, managed to win in the rotation and to shake up the hierarchy a little.
“It’s almost a change of era and it’s part of the balance that a staff must manage to manage, says Cyril Dumoulin, who will join Tremblay-en-France at the end of the season. The young people responded perfectly, they now have to assume their responsibilities this weekend. “
If the transition thus seems happy, the trajectory of the “H” does not escape some turbulence, after a year spent without public and almost without inflows of money. In January, the club president, Gaël Pelletier, spoke of the « catastrophe » that constituted the financial situation of the HBC – second budget of the championship (about 8 million euros) -, whose deadweight loss is estimated between 1.5 and 2 million euros for the 2020-2021 season.
Sportingly, the Nantes season was not easy. To the point of seeing the president declare mid-April, while Nantes risked seeing the podium escape him in the league, that his team had “No soul”. The “H” will eventually end up in third place in Starligue. “You have to know how to sting your players, even if it was perhaps excessive, he concedes today. But the results of the season are good; it is difficult to play on two fronts, in Europe and in the league, especially for a club of our level. “
Fear of a growth crisis
Its meteoric growth, its financial uncertainties and the many departures that are looming could lead HBC Nantes to fear a growth crisis in the coming months. “In eleven years here, I have been told that many times and, in the end, we have always continued to grow, laughs Rock Feliho, who, withdrawn from the field, should integrate the organization chart of the club. And if, unfortunately, something worse happens, we have climbed so high that we can afford it. “
The elders have not forgotten the very bitter defeat conceded in the final of the Final Four in 2018, against Montpellier, after having released the Parisian ogre in the semi-final. “I know what we did wrong at the time, supports Olivier Nyokas. We lost a lot of energy enjoying our victory in the semi-finals, when nothing had been done yet. All this, I will pass it on. “ To get by, the Nantes people will also have to get rid of a Barcelona who have beaten them twice in the group stage, but which they have already managed to bring down, in 2017, in front of the hot Nantes public (29-25) .
“The context at Barça at the moment is particular, with a coach leaving and internal concerns, recalls Olivier Nyokas. Nantes also has its share of uncertainties, but these are elements that can change the balance of power. “ This status of outsider is in any case not prohibitive, in a Final Four which often offered surprises.
In his dreams of greatness, Gaël Pelletier has always refrained from expressing his ambition to win the Champions League. “The Final Four is always the goal, he assures. We would like to experience it without spectators, in communion with our audience. We are a few hours away from going to the end, let’s already take advantage of this moment. “
Go to the end, become the second French European champion after Montpellier – and therefore before PSG -, everyone is thinking about it in Nantes. “A lot of parameters are in our favor. The step is high, but we know we can win ”, confirms Cyril Dumoulin. In any case, it would be the best way for the HBC to celebrate the departing players and complete its meteoric rise.