Jérôme Fernandez: Gallic handball giant with the golden touch

Story highlights

  • Handball star has helped guide France to unprecedented success
  • The 37-year-old has won three world championships and two Olympic golds to date
  • Fernandez has helped make handball popular in France
  • Looking to represent France for a fifth consecutive Olympics at Rio in 2016
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(CNN)He won the Champions League and is his country's all-time leading goal scorer, but this isn't a story about a famous footballer rather a man who has almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of handball in his homeland.

France's Jérôme Fernandez may not be a household name outside his sport, but his achievements on court put even those of his twinkle-toed compatriot Thierry Henry in the shade.
With more than 375 international caps and a goal tally for France nearing 1,500, Fernandez has been a colossus for both country and his various clubs in a career spanning almost two decades.
    During spells with sides in France (Montpelier and Toulouse), Spain (Barcelona and CF Ciudad Real) and Germany (THW Kiel), Fernandez has won numerous club titles, including the Champions League (twice), the sport's equivalent of football's premier European club competition.
    But it is on the international stage where Fernandez has made his most enduring impact winning three World (2001, 2009, 2011) and European (2006, 2010, 2014) titles and Olympic gold medals at the last two games in Beijing 2008 and London in 2012.
    "The best memory in my career and for my sport was the Olympics Games in Beijing, because it was a title that changed the view of people in France about handball," Fernandez told CNN's Human to Hero series.
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    "Now it's famous, but before we only saw football or basketball on TV. Now, (handball) is one of the best sports in France."

    Building a legacy

    When a 20-year-old Fernandez arrived on the international scene in 1997, France was beginning to emerge as a major force in handball. A bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was followed by the country's first World Championship gold medal three years later.
    The solid foundations were rapidly built on as France assembled a series of world-beating teams which has in turn helped fuel handball's growing popularity among the French public.
    Handball might not rival the participation levels of football or tennis -- the former has around two million licensed players in France, the latter just over one million -- but the sport has seen numbers rise steadily in recent years with participation up by almost a third -- France's Ministry of Sport estimated there were just under half-a-million registered players in 2012.
    Played on courts measuring 40 x 20 meters (roughly a quarter larger in size than a basketball court), handball teams are made up of seven players -- one goalkeeper and six outfield -- with seven substitutes who can replace another player at any time during a game.
    A match lasts one hour (played in two 30-minute halves) and games are often combative and fast-paced with lots of goals -- around one a minute on average.
    "If you want to play a contact sport with team spirit, you must play handball because I think it's one of the most complete sports in the world," Fernandez says.
    "It's like rugby or American Football -- it's very physical but very tactical too. You need to be fit and play collectively as a team."
    With sudden changes in tempo and end-to-end action there is much to keep crowds entertained, but it is goals that gets handball crowds going.
    The jump shot, which sees a player leap before unleashing the ball at speeds up to 125 kph (around 78 mph), is a spectacular climax to a long, drawn out tactical build-up and Fernandez is one of the game's greatest exponents, says German handball journalist, Bjorn Pazen.
    "He looks a little bit skinny compared to other players but he has the power in his arms and he can jump," Pazen explains. "He is famous for jumping over the defence players to score."
    At six foot, six inches tall, Fernandez can leap higher than most, but in handball circles, much like basketball, he is no giant -- the sport attracts its fair share of seven-footers, with Latvia's Dajnis Kristopans currently one of the sport's biggest attractions.

    Star player, team man

    While Fernandez's prolific goalscoring might grab the headlines, it is his intelligence and leadership that have made the 37-year-old one of the top 10 players of all-time, says Pazen, who has watched the Frenchman's career develop over the past 14 years.
    "Usually you get injured when you get hit really hard but he was always clever enough to make moves that nobody expected. You know, he's a very intelligent player in a very intelligent team," he says.
    "When he comes in, in crucial matches like finals, everybody knows they can count on him -- he scores the goals or makes the crucial pass so that others can score. He is a leader but he's also a team player."
    It came as no surprise that Fernandez took over as national captain in 2009 and soon led France to their third (his second) world title beating perennial rivals Croatia 24-19 in the final in Zagreb in February that year.
    "This was a career highlight ... it was my first competition as captain -- for me it was the most important," he says.
    Fernandez and France are currently on course to be crowned world champions for a fifth time at the World Championships currently taking place in Qatar -- Pazen says they are "big favorites" at the biennial tournament.

    Rio trio?

    Clinching a fourth world title would be deeply satisfying for Fernandez, but not as rewarding as attending a fifth consecutive Olympics and the chance to equal another record in what would be his swansong in the sport.
    "His big dream is to go to Rio to play and win the Olympic gold for a third time," Pazen says. "Only Russian goalkeeper, Andrey Lavrov has won three Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 2000."
    If he does travel to Brazil -- Pazen sees no reason why France would not pick him if he is fit -- then he has every chance of finishing his career on a golden high.
    But whatever happens in months ahead it looks like he'll never be too far away from the court in the years to come.
    "I'm thinking about becoming a coach. All that I have learned in my career I want to give to the young players so they can reach for titles with the clubs and the national team. For me it is normal to help players. Handball is my sport, my passion and I want to give back."