Karabatic delighted to help guide next golden generation
After winning his fourth World Championship title last year, Nikola Karabatic can match that tally in EHF EURO successes this month in Croatia.
The three-time IHF World Handball Player of the Year is the unrestricted boss on court for the French team after Thierry Omeyer and Daniel Narcisse brought an end to their international careers in 2017.
In this interview prior to the start of the EHF EURO in Croatia, where France face Norway, Belarus and Austria in Porec, the 33-year-old back court ace talks about his memories of Croatia, his role as head of the current crop of talent and how to stay motivated after so much success.
In 2006, 2010 and 2014, France were EHF EURO champions, so it seems already clear who will win the title in Croatia.
Yes, if you calculate like that, it's clear. I had not thought of that yet. Of course, I would be very happy, but honestly, I am not one to look at such numbers or statistics. To become European champions would be awesome - but to do that in Croatia will be super difficult.
But at least you have very good memories of Croatia. In 2009, you became world champion for the first time in Zagreb.
That was a sensational tournament with an outstanding final against the Croats, a truly great memory.
But from this team there are only four players left, so you cannot compare that in any way. I am very happy to play in Croatia again, but whoever wants to become champions must beat the hosts.
Does that mean that Croatia are your favourites for gold?
The level in Europe has, if one takes that competition as a comparison, increased enormously since 2009, many more teams can become European or world champions now.
I expect really tight, exciting games and many surprises already in the preliminary round. Due to the home advantage, the Croats are the big favourites, but they have to deal with huge public pressure.
In addition, Denmark, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Germany or Slovenia have the chance to win the title. All these teams can beat each other, this is what makes the tournament so special. But as I said, boosted by the fans, Croatia will build up enormous pressure against every opponent.
Your first group match will be a repeat of the 2017 World Championship Final against Norway. Is that already the benchmark for the rest of the tournament?
In general, every match is decisive during a EURO, but if you start with such a highlight, the meaning is, of course, even higher.
If we lose, we take the burden of two lost points to the main round and would then have to win a game more than Norway to reach the semi-finals. Therefore, this opening game is more than just a benchmark, because with a win, the tournament looks quite different for us.
You have won the EHF EURO, World Championship, EHF Champions League and Olympic Games more than once and won World Handball Player of the Year three times. Do you ever struggle to find motivation heading into another tournament?
There is a new title to win, this is what always motivates me. However, for example, I was even more motivated at the 2017 World Championship on home ground or the Olympics - because these tournaments just had a very different status for me personally, I was just more excited before the start.
I also know that my career is not going on that long, so I enjoy every moment, every game, every tournament with this great team.
The French team is in a state of transition - and every tournament brings at least one talent like Nedim Remili or Ludovic Fabregas to the fore. What is the secret of the French talent pool?
Our system is designed to produce top players again and again, this is why France is so successful in junior tournaments.
Last year it was not only Remili and Fabregas, who unfortunately is ruled out for the EURO through injury, but also Dika Mem and Timothy N'Guessan who came through and there are many more future stars to come. France will enjoy the next generation as much as our old golden generation did. This is a huge pool of well-prepared and skilled players.
And you are the head of this pool?
Yes, but I am not alone. I remember when Luc Abalo and I were the only young players in this team of world stars. There were people around, who guided us. Now I have taken on this role, as we do not have so many older players currently in our squad.
I enjoy helping the newbies, supporting them on the court and in training, so that everyone feels comfortable in the team, because the atmosphere is as crucial for success as the talent.
Two of those former “heads” are your coaches now - Didier Dinart and Guillaume Gille. Is that a weird feeling?
Yes, at the beginning it was, especially because both are not just teammates, but also good friends. But with Didier it was a process, first he was the third coach, then assistant to Claude Onesta, now boss. From their experience as players both know how it works, they have a sense of how a successful team has to tick.
And finally, a little prediction: What do you think about a final against your German PSG teammate Uwe Gensheimer?
Sounds good, that would be a huge success for us - but certainly also for Germany. Our first goal is the semi-final, when we have achieved that, I look forward to every opponent, including Germany.