This is me: Andrei Xepkin
Winning the EHF Champions League Men once is difficult enough. Ask any stalwart from the past three decades and they will tell you the same. But winning it seven times? However one man can lay claim to that. Just ask Andrei Xepkin. Upon winning the title in 2007 with Kiel, he wrote his name in the record books, doing so two years after his retirement. Stop what you're doing and read the words of a handball icon.
This is me: Andrei Xepkin
Ukraine. Everybody knows what is happening there right now. But only few can call it home. And I am quite lucky to be one of them. I did not feel it until now, but I really can say it out loud.
Of course, my life has steered me away in a different direction. A decision I made in 1993 changed everything and made me the man I am today. It was difficult, a big leap into the unknown, a token of faith in myself.
But let me tell you how I became the most successful player in the history of the EHF Champions League Men, winning the trophy seven times.
I was born in Zaporizhzhya, a big city of the former Soviet Union, which is now on Ukrainian soil. It was a hotbed for handball, a city which gave a lot of players and became one of the big training spots for the players who aimed high.
Traditionally, Zaporizhzhya had plenty of facilities, but my beginnings were humble. I started playing on a dirt court, like many, many others, with iron goals. All of us were helping set up the court, drawing the lines with some big sticks.
I remember that in one year, precisely that court became a spot where a local farmer set up a tomato plantation. But that did not deter me. Because in my local school, we could do two sports: handball and athletics. My brother was already playing handball, I was quite tall – over two metres – which basically gave me only one option.
And I always did it with a smile on my face. I loved playing handball every time I could do it, be it on that dirt court or in a more professional setting. It was probably that feeling that made me go this far.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had a choice to make. Every player wanted to go to Germany or Spain, to experience that feeling to feature in some of the best leagues in the world.
I always liked sunny beaches and warm weather, therefore I chose Spain. And there was me, a tall line player, in Malaga, Spain, on the Costa del Sol, trying to make a name for myself. I was not young, I had only turned 28 years old, but the first contact was unforgettable.
I could not speak Spanish – not a single word, never mind complex sentences – but that never phased me. I was living the life, enjoying the city and the beaches in my spare time. But I always said that adaptation is not hard if you like what you are doing and enjoying yourself.
You always adapt when everything is good. It is impossible not to. So, there I was, within two weeks, being able to exchange a few words with my teammates. Spanish is a very easy language to learn, compared to German, for example. These were happy moments, living in Malaga, close to the Mediterranean Sea.
Shortly after, however, I decided to move to Avidesa Alzira. It turned out to be one of the worst seasons of my life. It looked like my career was going to be stopped in its tracks. This is why when Barça came calling, it was a huge shock. I never expected it. It totally came out of the blue.
But this was my chance. And I seized it with both my hands.
I had never dreamt of playing at such a great club, with amazing teammates like Enric Masip, Tomas Svensson, Carlos Ortega, Xavier O’Callaghan, Rafa Guijosa and Iñaki Urdangarin and so many, many others. It was truly a “Dream Team” and I was a part of it. I will always be grateful for that.
We were like a handball machine, winning title after title, trophy after trophy. Every one of them was special, but if I were to pick one, it would be the one for THW Kiel in the 1999/2000 season, where we made an amazing comeback.
These made for amazing memories and I was very lucky, truly blessed, to share the court with so many great players, a golden generation that made history in handball, both on and off the court.
Right now, there is a small arena in Sant Feliu, 20 kilometres away from the centre of Barcelona, that bears my name. It is a funny story, it makes me smile, because I have a strong bond with the handball community in that small town and it really made me happy that they had this idea.
It is only when somebody acknowledges what you did for handball when you are truly aware that it was all thanks to having been lucky to be part of that generation of Barça. The players that are still in the city, we are still meeting together for dinners and to share memories about our playing careers.
Personally, I still remember the EHF Champions League Men finals, especially the games in the Palau Blaugrana, where we shared the wins with our amazing fans.
However, my record for the largest number of trophies in the history of the competition was not made at Barça, but with another team. Remember when I told you my favourite win was the one with Kiel?
Well, Kiel lent me a hand in 2007, when they needed a line player, two years after I had retired from handball. I was 42 at that time, but that offer lit the fire inside my belly. I had never played in the German Bundesliga before. It is an extremely competitive league and it was exactly what I needed at that time.
It was basically a gift, superbly wrapped, which I will always be grateful for. Because it gave me so much.
You know that iconic picture with seven fingers lifted for every trophy I won in the Champions League after the final against Flensburg? I will not lie, it is also one of the best memories of my career. It was my seventh title, an astonishing accomplishment.
I had written history, me, a simple boy from Zaporizhzhya, who started playing handball on a dirt court, which also served as a tomato plantation for a local farmer!
But the same dirt court is now… well, different. The current events have totally changed everything in the place I was born. And I never felt more Ukrainian than I am feeling right now. The war, this war has made me like this.
What is happening now in Ukraine has really affected everybody, including me, very strongly. I am shattered, my heart is in pieces, because all of the suffering that is going on right now. I have decided to help in every way that I can, to make life easier for the people displaced.
I have volunteered for the Red Cross and we are helping the refugees who are coming to Barcelona and in Spain. We see so many lives destroyed, so many women with children that are fleeing from the horrors in their homeland. And my heart cries every time because of the atrocities that everybody is seeing.
I hope the war ends now, right now, and Ukraine recovers, because we have extraordinary people and we are showing it every day. On the other hand, at Barça we have organised a series of days to collect clothes and food for the refugees. This club has always stood out for being supportive.
And this is probably why me and Barça were a perfect fit from the first day.
We would like to thank to Barcelona for supplying the photographs used in this piece.