ZAGREB (Reuters) - European handball championship hosts Croatia blew away bitter Balkan rivals Serbia 32-22 and world champions France edged Norway 32-31 on a thrilling opening day of the 16-nation tournament on Friday.
Iceland survived a late fightback by Sweden to win their Scandinavian derby 26-24 while Belarus pipped Austria 27-26 in the other two games.
Former world and Olympic champions Croatia, who are gunning for the only major honour missing from their trophy cabinet, dominated throughout to delight a fervent 11,000 home crowd in Split’s Spaladium Arena.
Although the match was played under tight security amid fears of crowd trouble, it produced a spectacular atmosphere among the spectators and plenty of sportsmanship on the court, where the gulf in class was everywhere to be seen.
Croatia’s quick movement of the ball in attack and an ironclad defence resulted in a flurry of fast breaks and uncontested shots, as right back Luka Stepancic and winger Manuel Strlek led the charge with six goals each.
France, who beat Norway 33-26 in last year’s world championship final, were made to work much harder this time as they trailed for most of the contest and eked out a last-gasp win after rallying in the last 15 minutes in Porec.
Having thrown away an early 8-5 lead, the French played catch-up after falling behind by three goals and had to dig deep in the final quarter of the rollercoaster as Kentin Mahe netted a game-high eight goals for the winners.
Driven by a barrage of superb saves by goalkeeper Bjorgvin Gustavsson, Iceland appeared to be home and dry after carving out a staggering 21-11 lead against the Swedes early in the second half.
Sweden slashed the deficit to 24-21 in the closing stages before Iceland pulled away with two unanswered goals to get their campaign on track.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Pritha Sarkar