"Rage to win" high among French players after becoming European champions
One month after their victory at the European Championships, the French team is training hard to win a gold medal in two years on home soil22 Jul 2022
The French team finished off the podium at Tokyo 2020 and the players are determined to improve ahead of the home Games in Paris.
By Aurore Gander | For the IPC
Crowned European champions one month ago, the French blind football team now has an even bigger goal ahead: to win gold at the home Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.
Besides showing their best in the matches, the French players are also looking to gain more recognition for their sport. For them, the 2024 Paralympic Games will not only be an opportunity to challenge the world's blind football superpowers on home soil, but also a way to change society's attitudes about people with impairments.
HARD WORK UNDERWAY FOR NEXT SEASONS
The European Championships, held in Pescara, Italy in June, were a triumph for the French squad. France clinched their third European title, more than a decade since their last victory in 2011.
The team's new captain Babacar Niang scored the winning penalty in the final match against Turkey.
“This victory at the Euro in June allowed me to win my first international competition,” the 31-year-old athlete said. “To tell you the truth, I am enjoying this new status of European champion."
While the victory in Italy gave the team a confidence boost, it does not mean that the road for the two seasons leading up to Paris 2024 will be easy.
“Winning obviously motivates us. It allows us to gain confidence, but that doesn't mean that we are the best,” said French veteran player and Paris 2024 ambassador Yvan Wouandji.
Next year's IBSA Blind Football World Championships in Birmingham, Great Britain will be one of the last major tournaments before Paris 2024, and Wouandji's team is getting ready for the challenge.
“We have to keep working with the same logic and with the things we have acquired, with what we have built collectively and won individually,” the two-time Paralympian said.
FACING UNDEFEATED BRAZIL
Despite their recent success, Wouandji, part of the French team that won silver at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, is staying grounded about their prospects at Paris 2024.
“It is not because you won a tournament there [in Italy] that we will necessarily win the Games," he said.
But there is no denying there are high expectations on the players for the home Paralympic tournament, especially after the success of the French men’s 11-a-side squad at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“Personally, and as a group, the fact that the French men's 11-a-side football team are the world champions inspires us and pushes us forward," said defender Hakim Arezki. "It is obviously also an additional motivation to try to do the same thing. That is, to shine and be among the best."
On their path to becoming the next Paralympic champions, the French players will likely face Brazil, which have won every gold medal awarded in this sport at a Paralympic Games.
“The Brazilian team's track record is impressive. They are the best and the champions in our category," Arezki said. "The fact that they are putting their Paralympic title on the line in 2024 is an incredible challenge for us."
France will also have to get past Argentina, which put forth a formidable lineup at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and ultimately took the silver medal after a tight 1-0 final against Brazil.
The rising powers in the sport, China and Japan, could pose a challenge as well. The Chinese squad won bronze at the home Games in 2008 and will be trying to return to the podium after finishing fourth at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
If all the French players put in the work ahead of the upcoming tournaments, Arezki is confident about their chances at Paris 2024.
“What the group is putting together, our motivation and rage to win, the support of our fans and the whole nation that will definitely be behind us, all of this is a final chance and opportunity for us to show who we really are - winners,” he said.
The audience, especially the French one, is also on the team's radar for the 2024 Paralympic Games. Team captain Niang is hoping the home tournament will bring more visibility for blind football in France.
Taking on his ambassador’s role, Wouandji says he expects Paris 2024 to change the broader attitudes towards people with disabilities, especially in sports.
“It will also help to change mentalities and the way people look at a visual impairment so that they see us first as sportsmen and women before taking into account our disability,” he said. “They will look at the athlete and the field and not at the white cane or any other tool for getting around.”
Wouandji became a Paris 2024 ambassador to promote diversity and explain the impairments that athletes have to others.
“It is a special feeling to have been chosen as an ambassador for the Games. Having the Games in Paris will be the culmination of all the work that the athletes have been doing for a while, such as visits to schools, in different public and private structures, to talk about disability," Wouandji said.
For him, the Paralympics are also an opportunity to attract more blind people to Para sports: "Attracting young blind people, visually impaired people, girls, boys, adults too, who will say 'I see other blind people practising sport, why not me?'"
And those who are drawn into the Paralympic Movement will not all necessarily have an impairment, Wouandji added.
“This can allow us to have more sighted people, supervisors, referees, coaches, volunteers who want to accompany us in training and in a better structuring of the clubs,” the Paris 2024 ambassador said.