LONDON (Reuters) - Olympic champions France began the defense of their men’s title with a thumping 44-15 defeat of hosts Britain on Sunday in front of a pumped up and more importantly packed Copper Box.
As an empty seats row broke out earlier in the day, angering Britons who tried and failed to buy tickets in the Games build-up, the vibrant and colourful handball venue provided organizers with some relief.
“Having this many people in the venue really makes the atmosphere,” venue manager Iria Pereira told Reuters as Hungary and Denmark took to the court to the delight of the noisy supporters.
“The tickets we are re-selling have even been taken almost immediately. I think the TV broadcasts yesterday gave people an incentive to come and watch today.”
Even the few multi-colored seats that were left vacant did not create an eyesore for the evening session, and French poster boy Nikola Karabatic was in no doubt about his highlight.
“It’s a great feeling to have that atmosphere. Maybe the English people can start to discover this sport,” the 2007 world player of the year told Reuters.
“We knew it was going to be quite easy for us but it’s still nice to play handball in England in a full arena.”
International Handball president Hassan Moustafa had predicted his sport would turn heads at the Olympics and Games chairman Sebastian Coe called handball an “undiscovered gem”.
Former player Moustafa punched the air triumphantly as he walked down to his courtside seat, shuffling happily to the constant stream of music blaring out on the sound system.
The surprising opening loss for women’s holders Norway by the French on Saturday was never in danger of being repeated as France stormed past the hapless debutants.
A 1-0 lead after two minutes and a 2-1 advantage with four minutes gone was as good as it got for Britain, who conceded 21 goals in the first half and 23 in the second in the Group A match.
Guillaume Joli top-scored with 11 for the reigning Olympic and world champions, who were criticized following a lackluster European championship in January where they finished 11th.
Earlier on Sunday, surprise Beijing silver medalists Iceland beat newcomers Argentina 31-25, Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson firing nine goals to help them through a tricky opening encounter.
Also in Group A, three-times silver medalists Sweden saw off Tunisia 28-21 while in Group B twice gold medal winners Croatia beat South Korea 31-21 and Spain, 2008 Olympics bronze medalists, beat Euro 2012 runners-up Serbia 26-21.
Hungary, who have lost the bronze medal match on four occasions, narrowly failed to beat European champions Denmark in the day’s final game as they went down 27-25.
The losers enjoyed the majority of the support but it was Denmark, with Crown Princess Mary looking on and saluting the team afterwards, who got the royal seal of approval.
Editing by Ken Ferris