INTERVIEW-Olympics-Handball-Criticism drives French - Karabatic

LONDON, July 27 Fri Jul 27, 2012 12:47pm EDT

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LONDON, July 27 (Reuters) - Olympic and world champions France have had to endure rare criticism coming in to the men's competition at the London Games after a poor European championships in January, all of which fuels their fire.

Poster boy and 2007 world player of the year Nikola Karabatic knows all about the ups and downs and told Reuters ahead of Sunday's first game that any negativity only motivates the team.

"When people around you are saying it's not going well anymore, the team is too old, the team is not going to win anymore, it's really easy to use this to motivate you," said the 28-year-old.

"We say 'OK, now we're going to show you'. We're going to show the handball world it's not the end and we are still the best."

France finished 11th in Serbia in a competition they were supposed to walk all over, prompting an inquest given it was the first time since 2004 that they had failed to reach the semi-finals of a major competition.

Karabatic, whose father played handball for Yugoslavia and who moved to France as a four-year-old, said it would be foolish to react negatively to the criticism.

"We always wanted more attention from the media. When we won everything was nice and perfect but I knew that one day, should we fail, it would be more difficult.

"We are getting famous because even when we lose, people are talking about us. That's a sign of the growing attention," he said after a balcony photo shoot with the Olympic stadium in the background, his girlfriend nearby.

All the attention will be on the high-scoring Karabatic and his teammates as they seek to erase the bad memories of their Euro 2012 performance.

WEAKER GROUP

They have the weaker of the two groups in which to warm up for the knockout stages, provided they get there, though Karabatic said he would rather have been drawn in the tougher Group B.

"I would have preferred to be in the tough group. You know that if you finish first in this group you will play the fourth team in the weaker group.

"There you are almost sure to be in the semi-finals. We know that even if we finish first we're going to play a good team."

France should dominate Group A which includes surprise Beijing silver medallists Iceland, three times runners-up Sweden, Tunisia, Britain and Argentina.

Group B meanwhile crams together European champions Denmark, Beijing bronze winners Spain, twice Olympic winners Croatia and Euro 2012 runners-up Serbia, not to mention Hungary, seeking an overdue medal after finishing fourth four times.

South Korea are the weakest team in the group but will be no pushover for some of Europe's leading players and nations.

Karabatic, already envisaging France in a last-eight clash, hopes the weaker Group A teams are easy to overcome.

"We know the group is important but how we play in the quarter-finals is the most important thing," he said confidently.

"We want to win every group game and be well prepared for this quarter-final. That will be our most important game."

France begin their Olympic title defence on Sunday against the hosts Britain at 1830 GMT. (Edited by Jason Neely)

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