This is me: Didier Dinart
Three EHF Champions League trophies. Three world titles. Two Olympic gold medals. Two European championships. Didier Dinart is one of the biggest legends of the game. And in today’s episode of our This is me… series, Dinart takes us on his career journey, from how it all began to his biggest successes, in his own words.
THIS IS ME: Didier Dinart
It all started with a promise that I made to myself when I boarded the plane to the mainland from my Guadeloupe island: “Don’t come back here again.”
I was only 15 and had started playing handball two years before, but I already knew what I wanted. When I was leaving my island and my mother behind - it was to succeed. Not to come back two years later, tail between legs, after failing to make it.
When I made the decision to leave, I did not have any big dreams. I had run away from the concrete court outside the school, just like the others did, back in 1993. It was to watch the World Championship final between France and Russia.
Jackson Richardson was the player I looked up to when I was a kid. With the dreadlocks and the defensive style, he looked like a magician to me at the time. He was also from an island, La Réunion, which was something that could help me identify with him even more.
But being someone like him, a professional handball player, was far from my mind when I went to my mother with Eddy Couriol, who looked over the young talents in Guadeloupe. I did not leave her any choice. I had decided to leave, and I would board the plane to the mainland.
Dijon had convinced me to join them, even though I was 16. Back in the day, my goal was only to play in the third division with Alain Quintallet, someone who had a huge importance in my career. Alain saw something in me and believed in me. He was persuasive enough to convince me to join him in Dijon, a few thousand kilometres from home. He also put money on the table to pay for my tuition, as my mother could never have afforded to pay for the sports and studies section.
I remember my first steps in Dijon vividly. It was on a Sunday.
I found myself alone, in my room, in the building all soon-to-become stars were staying. I was lonely, it was raining outside, the cultural shock was big, and suddenly I realised there was no turning back.
And I cried.
It is perhaps the only time I remember crying. I went for a walk outside along a long pathway. I cried a good one, and it was done. It was time to get things done. My first year on the mainland was a tough one. I went from two trainings a week in Guadeloupe to seven in Dijon, and my body could not cope.
But other than this pubalgia (chronic groin lesion) that took one year away from me; otherwise, I was fine.
And then came Montpellier three years later. Sylvain Nouet, who was coaching the French national under-21 team I was part of, came up to me one day and asked me if I would be up for the challenge. Of course, I paid attention to someone like that.
I could have gone for OM Vitrolles back then, the big French club offering amazing salaries to their players. But I wanted to play in the first division. To actually play. And Montpellier, led by Patrice Canayer, could offer me that.
You have to understand that Patrice Canayer was a young coach back in the day. He was in his third season. He had a plan for me, and this plan included having me on the court.
I will give you an anecdote about my choice of Montpellier instead of Marseille. When Canayer and I discussed the forthcoming contract, I thought I was smart. I asked him to double my salary in Dijon and thought he would never accept it. I thought I was clever. Patrice gave me €350 more each month, and I felt I was not clever.
It was in Montpellier that I became a pure defender. I broke my jaw in 1998, and when I came back, Patrice asked if I wanted to play on the line, even though I was a left back. I said yes, keeping in mind that the most important thing to me was to be on the court.
And then, I started playing only defence, which was just as fine. I always thought I would rather do one thing perfectly than do 10 things at the same time. I quickly learned that I could not have energy for both sides of the court.
The question I have answered the most in my life is: “Is it not frustrating to play only defence?” No. I wanted to be the best in something. So, I went for the thing that nobody liked: defence. And that’s how things started.
I won my first Champions League in 2003 with Montpellier a few days before leaving the club. It was not my first title, as I had already won the World Championship with France in 2001. Of course, lifting the Champions League trophy was emotional, but nothing too crazy. It was this way because the scenario was magic, turning things around as we did against Pamplona. It was more about how things happened than the fact we won the Champions League that gave me goosebumps.
I’ve always been able to move on to the next thing quickly. I won the French championship with Montpellier, and I looked further ahead. The same thing happened when we won gold with France in 2001. And the same thing happened when I won the Champions League.
I was young, and I thought it would happen again. You don’t appreciate things the right way when you are 20. I was only really moved when we won the Olympics in 2008. It was the Olympics, something that many amazing players in sports have never won. This was something else.
Coming back to Montpellier, I had already signed with Ciudad Real for the summer of 2003, and the deal was sealed six months before. That club from Spain had called me two years earlier already. Their president Domingo Diaz wanted me as part of a team to win the Champions League. But it was too early. I felt I would only be one part of the puzzle, more than playing a big role in the team.
Of course, in the early 2000s, Spain was the place to be in handball. Barça, Ciudad Real, Valladolid, Leon, it was something else, and the money was there, too. Just look at the names playing in Ciudad Real: Olafur Stefansson, Siarhei Rutenka, Alberto Entrerrios, Arpad Sterbik, Mirza Dzomba, Julen Aguinagalde, Rolando Urios…
But I was waiting for the right time. Domingo Diaz called two winters in a row, and I would listen respectfully. Today, players would probably jump on the train thinking it will never come around again. But 20 years ago, moving to Spain was a big leap.
But I took it. I wanted to play in one of the biggest clubs in the world. I wanted to become one of the best defenders in the world. In Ciudad, I met Talant Dujshebaev and Raul Gonzalez. Both took over in 2005, two years after I arrived, and they changed the way I saw handball. It always makes me smile when everybody says that about Talant and Raul, but it is true.
They taught me to analyse what I was doing and why I was doing this or that. Why I was putting my foot one way or another. Both taught me handball again. I was good before; I was in control after.
It is no wonder that, with the best players in the world and such coaches, Ciudad Real was one of the best teams. I won the Champions League three times there, in 2006, 2008 and 2009, and also played in many finals.
But the one I remember the most was in 2008 against THW Kiel. We lost by two at home, and the spirit was not exactly optimistic afterwards. Kiel were one of the best sides in the world at home, and turning things around almost looked impossible.
When we entered the Ostsee Halle, our plan was clear: leave the court with our guts hanging out, not regret anything and spoil their party. We wanted to spoil THW Kiel’s party regardless of the outcome.
What followed still remains incredible today. I remember some THW players, action after action, trying to avoid our defence but feeling helpless. I remember Christian Zeitz starting a brawl, spectators throwing things on the court, and me getting a red card.
And us winning by six in the end, and the arena was completely silent. It felt crazy as if we had made everyone lose their minds. That was a defining moment for us as a group. No wonder that in the following seasons we felt like nothing could happen to us.
Handball was just fun at that point. It was just a game, as we had so much trust in ourselves. Things might have been hard some nights, but we had so much talent and experience that we would always find a way around adversity.
And there was a sense of real pride as well. Before handball came, nobody could place Ciudad Real on the map. We can actually tell that we put Ciudad Real, that small city in the middle of Spain, on the map of Europe.
We all knew it was not going to last, though, and it did not. When it became clear that the financial situation was getting worse, President Domingo Diaz was a real gentleman to me. He was OK to let me go for all that I had brought to the club during the nine years I stayed in Spain.
I stayed one season in Paris Saint-Germain. To me, it felt better to end my career at the start of an adventure of a growing club than at the end of a successful club going down.
Even though I am not a player anymore, I still use a lot of things that I learnt when I was still on the court. How the trainers behaved with me as a player and the loyalty between the staff and the players are just a couple of things that I learnt from Talant and Raul.
And even though I don’t often look back on my career, I feel a lot of pride in the rare instants when I do. I am one of the people that think that the only way is forward and that there is not much use in staying in the past.
I only know that I kept that promise to myself: I did not go back to Guadeloupe. My mother cried a lot when that plane took off, even though she never told me. She cried, she cried, and she cried again.
But she was facing a son that knew what he wanted. And who was determined to reach the top. And there is nothing you can do against that.