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25.09.2017, 17:21
Neagu: "My fans told me to come home"
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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Change has been the key word for Cristina Neagu, who talks to ehf-euro.com about her move to a new club and the major overhaul of the Romanian national team going into the EHF EURO 2018 Qualification
 

Neagu: "My fans told me to come home"

2017 has been a year of change for Cristina Neagu. The IHF World Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016 switched from Buducnost to CSM Bucuresti and is now the undisputed leader of the Romanian women’s national team as several experienced players have retired from the ‘tricolore’.

Neagu’s five-year stint at Buducnost ended this summer. She won her first Women’s EHF Champions League title with the Montenegrin club but the Romanian superstar has now signed for CSM Bucuresti, the club that represents her home town.

A win-win decision

“It was a mutual decision. CSM needed me, I wanted to be back at home,” Neagu said. “I didn’t come here for the money, I came because I missed Romania, the Romanian fans and, particularly, my home. My inbox was full of messages from the fans who told me to come back.”

It was the coup of this year’s transfer window, but Neagu is more than a player for CSM Bucuresti and Romanian handball in general. She is the face of the sport in her country, a player that is respected, loved and even worshipped by many fans.

Away games in smaller cities will surely be sold out, and regarding the demand for autographs and pictures by fans, Neagu could easily stay at least 30 minutes on court after the end of her matches.

Her popularity is huge and helped her to become one of the most important sporting personalities in Romania, even bigger even than several football players.

Neagu as a role model

It maybe a reason why CSM has decided to team up with Neagu and promote handball in Romania. One week ago, the 29-year old player attended the opening of the new school year in Bucharest and inspired children to take up handball.

There are more than 1,500 young players in CSM’s academy, one of the most successful in Romania, and there are few that do not see Neagu as an inspiration.

“I’m happy to see so many kids and we want to help them understand the benefits of the sport,” Neagu said. “Maybe not many kids know me very well, but the parents do. Therefore, it would be amazing if they would help their children to be active, because taking up sport or handball means a healthier life style.”

Her current role suits Neagu.

“When I started to play handball, I had several objectives: to become a top player, maybe the best, and to be a role model for the kids. If I inspire children to play handball, I cannot be anything but proud,” she said.

A new Romanian side

While CSM are among the top favourites this season to win the Women’s EHF Champions League, the Romanian national team are undergoing one of their biggest rebuilding projects in the last 15 years.

After Romania finished fifth at the EHF EURO 2016, failing to build on their World Championship bronze medal from the previous year, several important and experienced players decided to retire.

Neagu’s teammates from CSM, Paula Ungureanu and Oana Manea as well as Aurelia Bradeanu, have quit the national team after nearly 15 years.

Therefore, Romania’s mission at the World Championship in December, but also in the qualification phase for the EHF EURO 2018, will be even harder.

Neagu is undoubtedly the leader and the star of the team. She will share the back court with teammates who played for the Romanian team before but do not boast the same experience yet as the 29-year-old star.

Without the retired players, Romania will have to adapt. But the seeds have been planted well before, as Denisa Dedu, Crina Pintea, Madalina Zamfirescu, Eliza Buceschi or Cristina Laslo have already had their first experience in the national team.

The first test for the new Romanian national team will be two EHF EURO 2018 qualiers against Austria on Wednesday (27 September) and Portugal on Sunday (1 October) in Group 4, which also includes Russia.

All matches will be shown live on ehfTV.com.

The Romanian side have already won a double-header against Austria (67:53 on aggregate) this year during the play-offs for the World Championship. It was no walkover for the ‘tricolore’ and Neagu is cautious before the start of the group.

“There will be tough games, it is a well-balanced group, but I believe that Romania and Russia are the favourites. We need to start the group with two wins and we have to be focused,” Neagu said.


TEXT: Adrian Costeiu / ew / ts
 
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