By Devapriyo Das, Yang Jingzhong
COPENHAGEN, July 11 (Xinhua) -- The Danish men's national handball team is among tournament favorites at the 2012 London Olympics, where they will seek their first Olympic medal.
Xinhua reporters met the squad at the Travbanehallen handball arena in Amager, southern Copenhagen, at a pre-game training session in early July.
"We went to the Beijing Olympics as European champions and now we are doing the same again in London, but we hope to do a little better this time," said playmaker Bo Spellerberg during a pause in practice.
The team finished a disappointing seventh at the 2008 games, and can expect a hard time again this year, when they face Hungary, South Korea, Serbia, Croatia and Spain in the group stage. The latter three teams finished runners-up behind Denmark at the European Championships (EC) 2012.
"It is impossible to say who is our toughest opponent because the group is very difficult and you may lose to anybody," said team coach Ulrik Wilbek.
"But we have also won against all those teams... so we know that we can beat them. It is up to us to prepare properly and hopefully win all the matches," he added.
The London games, which features 12 teams each in the men's and women's handball events, marks the first time that Denmark's male and female squads have both qualified for the same Olympics.
The women's team has a glittering record at the games, having won gold three times in a row in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and is favored to win a medal again this year.
The men are favorites following their EC victory in January, which led to their automatic qualification for the London games. The men's team has won bronze and silver at the World Championships in 2007 and 2011, respectively, and gold in the EC 2008 and 2012, but an Olympic medal continues to elude them.
Wilbek said the team's preparations have improved since the Beijing games, and that it would avoid making the mistakes it had made in the past.
During the training session, the players took part in what was the ultimate goalkeeper's workout, where pairs of handballers took turns to launch a volley of shots at goal, in rapid succession. The lanky goalie lunged at the balls, blocking most of them, and watching some sail past into the back of the net.
"In the national team, we have one training session each day where we work the goalkeepers really hard, and in the afternoon, we train with the attacking players," said starting goalkeeper Niklas Landin Jacobsen.
"Hopefully I will save a lot of balls, and give the team a good start against Hungary," the first-time Olympian added, when asked about his expectations of the summer games.
Throughout the session, tall midfielders and nimble attackers passed and weaved their way towards goal, before leaping high and hurling the resin-tempered ball towards the net.
Among those who literally stood out is 196cm-tall, 96 kilo, long-haired, left-back player Mikkel Hansen, who was named Player of the Year 2011 by the International Handball Federation.
"It is all about the team, about bringing the best out of every player... every second counts, we know that," he said when asked what was the secret to succeeding at tournaments.
"We have a very tough group with many good teams and we need to be ready from the start, and to take every ball possession as if it was the last in the game and give everything we have," he added.
A powerful player with a knack for scoring goals with free throws in extra time, Hansen was top scorer with 68 goals at the 2011 World Championships, and scored nine goals against Serbia in the EC 2012 final.
The handball game's fast pace and format means coaches are especially well placed to influence a match while it is in progress. For Wilbek, that could mean employing a 5-1 defensive formation to supplement the team's existing 6-0 system, and thereby disrupt opponents' play style and rhythm at the Olympics.
"If the defense and goalkeeper are good, we get a lot of fast breaks, and that makes it easier for us to make goals," said playmaker Spellerberg.
A strong defense in particular makes it "easier for us to play in attack, with more confidence, and we don't need to score every time," he added.
Moreover, Wilbek said he tries to give all players in the squad a chance to get on court during the game, "so we have good power both at the end of individual games and at the end of the tournament."
"It is important to try to change between the players and to find out when the match outcome is going to be decided, and then you use your big guns," he added, referring to how he deploys his best players.
While training and tactics have seen the team through to the opening round of the Olympics, it will take cool heads and steady nerves to bring back a medal.
The pressure is even greater considering handball is the second-most popular sport in Denmark, after football, and that Danes are expecting their team to win.
"You have to prepare yourself well, physically and mentally on the field," Hansen said, when asked how the team will stay focused during their medal hunt.
"You also need luck to go all the way, but we have a good team, great players who play in (handball) clubs around the world, so the players are used to facing such pressure... so I am very confident about going to the London Olympics as one of the favorites to win," he added.
Special Report: London Olympics 2012