BEIJING (AFP) — Iceland's men's handball team earned a shot at winning their nation's first ever Olympic gold medal Friday with stunning win over Spain that set up a showdown with tournament favourite France.
Iceland crushed Spain 36-30 in their semi-final while France ended Croatia's hopes of defending the Olympic title for the first time with a 25-23 win.
Iceland have equalled their country's highest Olympic achievement simply by making the final and guaranteeing themselves the silver medal, a feat last achieved by their nation in the men's triple jump in 1956.
The country's meagre Olympic trophy cabinet also includes two bronze medals, one for the women's pole vault in Sydney in 2000 and one for men's judo in Los Angeles in 1984.
Snatching gold would be unprecedented and sure to spark frenzied celebrations among Iceland's 300,000 population.
Players wiped tears from their eyes as they thanked about 100 noisy supporters who made the trip to the National Indoor Stadium, where Chinese locals also backed the Nordic underdogs.
"This means everything to us," Icelandic pivot Robert Gunnarson said after his team added Spain to a list of scalps his unfancied team have claimed in Beijing, including, Germany, Russia and Poland. "It's just a dream."
However, Gunnarson said his team realised it faced a massive task to overhaul France, the form team of the competition so far and on its own quest to make amends for a humiliating quarter-final exit at the 2004 Athens Games.
"We deserve to be in the final, the way we have played," he said. "We can't celebrate too much now, we've got to get ready for one last push."
Iceland caught Spain napping with an early onslaught and raced to a 5-0 lead after five minutes, never allowing their opponents to recover momentum.
They were 17-15 up at the break and the lead had blown out to six goals going into the final 10 minutes, when the Norsemen matched a desperate Spain goal for goal until the final whistle.
Spanish coach Juan Carlos was not convinced the Icelanders' team ethos could pull off a fairytale win against a well-drilled French team packed with individual talent.
"France have been playing very, very well," he said. "I think they'll be a really tough opponent for Iceland to beat."
French coach Claude Onesta said his players could move up a gear after they overcame a gritty Croatian outfit in a bruising encounter, lambasting his players for hasty passing and poor shooting.
"It was a hard match," he said. "We could have played better but there is a lot of pressure in the semi-finals. I was extremely happy with our performance in the final five minutes."
For France, making the final will help erase painful memories of Athens, when they were also red-hot favourites after a five-match winning streak but crashed out in the quarter-finals.
"We've spent years getting ready for this, but the game is not won yet," right winger Luc Abalo said.
Both France and Croatia applied crunching defence and exchanged tit-for-tat goals, with three goals the maximum lead throughout an arm-wrestle of a match where the lead changed hands four times.
Croatia had the better of the early exchanges but France enjoyed its strongest spell at the end, pulling three goals clear two minutes from time to give their opponents little time to make up the deficit.
Croatian centre-back Ivano Balic said he was disappointed at missing out on the the chance of a gold medal, but his side would have no trouble motivating itself for the bronze medal match against Spain.
"We're still in the tournament and we still believe," he said. "We must still fight until the end."
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