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03.11.2015, 14:42
France’s gladiator
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EHF EURO KEY PLAYERS: He is the player whose name will come to the mind of many when talking about handball, and come the EHF EURO 2016 all eyes will be on Nikola Karabatic
 

France’s gladiator

At the age of 31 Nikola Karabatic is one of the persons that define handball today. Ask anyone in the streets – no matter whether in France or elsewhere – what comes to their mind when thinking about handball, and chances are high that the name of the French centre back will come up.

However, it is not just the public that think highly of Karabatic. Claude Onesta has coached him for a over a decade now in the French national team.

"Even when he was a still a kid, one heard stories that his dad would tell that Nikola was already planning to become the best player in the world.

"And from very early on you could see he had something special in him. He played his first professional game at 17, he scored eleven goals in the Champions League final against Portland San Antonio in 2003 which was a massive performance for a boy who had just turned 19," says Onesta.

It was in fact this game that many discovered for the first time his abilities and something you could call ‘denial of defeat’.

This is what makes Nikola Karabatic so special; he will do everything in his powers not to lose a handball game.

When he was young, he showed it by scoring as many goals as possible, but in the past ten years he has matured a lot – in particular courtesy of his first international transfer, in 2005 to German powerhouse THW Kiel.

"I think his transfer to THW Kiel was kind of the key in his career" explains former French international François-Xavier Houlet.

"There he was trained by Noka Serdarusic, with whom he had links outside handball before. Noka didn't have to say much to him, Nikola was really dedicated to the task.

“He also learnt a lot from Stefan Lövgren, just by looking at him and listening to him. This time in Kiel was where Niko learnt to take a step back, and maybe see a gap that opened up for a pass, see little bit further than the others did.”

Claude Onesta agrees, saying that "from the start, Nikola Karabatic had a very high handball IQ. But as his career progressed, he became more organised in what he was doing.

“You know, he wanted things to be precise and what struck me is the respect he had for people. Didier Dinart, the Gille brothers, in the beginning he wouldn't dare say anything to them because he knew what they had achieved."

Taking no prisoners

At Montpellier (2003), at Kiel (2007) and then at Barcelona (2015), Nikola Karabatic won three EHF Champions League titles. With France he won the EHF EURO in 2006, 2010 and 2014, the World Championship in 2009, 2011 and 2015, the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012 – on top he was named World Handball Player in 2007 and 2004.

That does not mean it has all been easy for him, but no matter what obstacle he faces, Karabatic stands up and fight.

"Mentally he is as strong as he is physically. No matter what situation he faces, his face doesn't change. He is almost like a gladiator," says Houlet who sees him play almost every week.

"Maybe that's his culture, because guys from the Balkans are tough as hell, maybe that's some kind of shell he's built for himself, but it works very well.”

And for the Paris Saint-Germain superstar, who was born in the Serbian city of Nis, there are no easy games, no little opponents.

"Nikola is giving 110 per cent everytime he wears a jersey," says Claude Onesta. "That's the way he is, take no prisoners, you play or you don't.

“And his attitude has got an impact on everybody around him, just look at how a team plays when he's there and when he's not.”

Just look at FC Barcelona struggling in this season’s VELUX EHF Champions League without the French centre back after they were flying past everybody last season.

Two superstars side by side

Following two seasons at FC Barcelona, Nikola Karabatic transferred to Paris last summer to help PSG win their first EHF Champions League trophy, in a season that will also see him take part in the EHF EURO  in January and in the Olympics.

And those, who doubted that two superstars, such as Mikkel Hansen and Karabatic, would be able to play side by side, were proven wrong.

"Two different players united by the same goal, that's how you could describe them," says Houlet.

"Nikola doesn't quite care whether he scores ten or two, while Mikkel is probably the best shooter in the world. Both of them are really intelligent and work for the same thing.

"Nikola has polished his talent over the years, he's now able to adapt to whoever plays next to him in no time. Paris are playing a full-on attack, just like Kiel were in 2007."

And you would says that this is new for Karabatic? "Definitely not," concludes Houlet. "Karabatic is playing the same way he was twelve years ago, only better. He was a raw diamond, now he's a polished one."


TEXT: Kevin Domas / ts
 
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