Dembélé aims for more silverware at the peak of her career
At 36 years old, Siraba Dembélé Pavlović is ready to end her stellar career this summer. But the French left wing wants to quit in style, with another medal around her neck and another trophy in her cabinet.
“This has been one of the reasons I am still playing. Winning the EHF Champions League title has been a priority and having the chance of delivering a win at the zenith of my career has just motivated me to go on,” says Dembélé.
“I have said from the start that this is a big objective this season and this is the true motivation that I needed to keep playing at the highest level. Therefore, I want to get it right and finish off everything in style.”
Since taking the court at Dreux HC 20 years ago, Dembélé has become a leader, one of the best left wings in history and a player that wrote history for France’s women senior national team.
A former national team captain, Dembélé featured for France 291 times, the third largest number of caps ever. She scored 848 goals – putting her second in the all-time rankings only behind Veronique Pecqueux-Rolland – and won gold, silver and bronze at the EHF EURO, gold at the 2017 IHF Women’s World Championship and silver at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“I have medals in all competitions I played in, but I never won the Champions League. And I made it an objective to get as close as possible in my final year of my career. Playing for CSM Bucuresti with this objective in mind, I think we can do it, so it was the perfect setting for me in these circumstances,” says the French left wing.
Dembélé came to CSM in 2020 and was one of the pieces in a puzzle which the Romanian side believed could win the trophy. However, they failed to seal their tickets to the EHF FINAL4 two times in the last two seasons, losing by the slightest of margins in the quarter-finals.
First, against CSKA, when Dembélé suffered the toughest injury of her career, an Achilles tendon tear, which saw her out of contention for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Romanian side went crashing out on the away goals rule. Next season, 2021/22, CSM were eliminated by Team Esbjerg by a single goal on aggregate.
“It has been tough, but as those results show, CSM are one of the best teams in Europe. And it is the perfect setting to end my career on a high, because this is a club with ambitions, a club that is really trying to win the trophy every season and it is a club full of experienced players,” says Dembélé.
That experience, as well as Dembélé’s, will be put to the test in the Match of the Week against Esbjerg (Sunday 7 May, 16:00 CEST), in what could prove to be another exit for CSM in the quarter-finals of the European premium competition.
While CSM looked like a proper title contender in the first half of the group phase, the Romanian side drifted away from that form in 2023. First, they lost their last match in the group against Krim Mercator Ljubljana, which saw them relegated to second place, albeit with a quarter-finals berth in their hand.
But in the first leg of the quarter-finals, CSM were outplayed by Esbjerg once again. The four-goal, 28:32 loss could prove decisive in the race for Budapest. The Danish side has not lost by more than two goals this entire season, therefore CSM have a mountain to climb in the Romanian capital in the second leg.
“We have some very experienced players who have seen it all in handball. Therefore, I think we can still mount a comeback, we can still win against Esbjerg and progress to the EHF FINAL4. But they are too a very experienced side, a very good team, with players like Henny Reistad and Nora Mørk,” says Dembélé.
“We saw what Nora did in the first leg and she played very, very good. But we have some excellent players too and we will give absolutely everything to take the win and qualify. I know I will do everything in my power, it could be my last game in the Champions League, so we will make it count, that’s for sure.”
Dembélé has played 10 seasons so far in the EHF Champions League Women, scoring 340 goals in total. This final season has been the second best in terms of goals, with 48 goals scored, six fewer than in 2017/18.
But it is not only about the goals for the left wing, it is about leadership and defensive skills. She refined those skills playing for France, as she usually plays on the intermediate position, rather than on the wing in defence.
Whether Dembélé can stop Mørk’s threat from will be crucial for the second leg, which will be played in front of a sold-out arena, with the vintage Polivalenta trembling under the pressure from the CSM fans.
“This is a special match for me, it could be my last, I told you that already. Hopefully, we will make it to the EHF FINAL4 and there, everything can happen,” concludes Dembélé.
Photos © Marco Wolf; FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria; Razvan Pasarica/SPORT PICTURES