|14.07.2016, 14:50||◄ last page|
FEATURE: Joël Abati looks back to 2002, when SC Magdeburg became the very first non-Spanish winners of the Men's EHF Champions League
Abati and Magdeburg felt untouchable in 2002
Whenever Joël Abati steps into Magdeburg's GETEC Arena, which was named Börderlandhalle until 2011, he gets "shivers down his spine”.
The reasons for this are numerous, but not least because that is where he won the EHF Champions League in 2002. After winning the Bundesliga and the EHF Cup in 2001, this was the third trophy within 12 months for the club and fourth within 18 months for the French right back who was crowned world champion at home in January 2001.
“Winning four major titles in 18 months, that's kind of unbelievable,” he recalls. “The real key moment in this Champions League campaign was the quarter-final against Celje. We lost by two at home and won by three in Slovenia, with a last second goal by Nenad Perunicic. Once that was done, we knew nothing could have happened to us and we slayed Kolding in the semi-final.”
Then came Veszprem, one of the big names in European handball. "They had Carlos Perez and Ivo Diaz, the two Cuban players, they had Zltako Saracevic," Abati says. "Those were players that I was looking up to at that point, I was looking at them on TV and I found myself facing them in the finals. I had to push aside my feeling at that point.”
Even after losing by two in Hungary, Magdeburg faced the challenge to turn things around at home to win the Champions League.
“Losing by two was the worst thing that could have happened to Veszprem, they didn't know if they had to play as if we were even or if they had to do everything just to not lose by two goals,” says the left-hander, who was 32 by then.
“We had our fans pushing us, and it didn't feel like we could lose. I remember Olafur Stefansson playing a great final, just like Oleg Kuleshov. We were ahead by five at half-time, and we knew nothing could happen to us.”
And, of course, the Börderlandhalle was on fire : "Apart from Paris Bercy in 2001, I never experienced such a crazy atmosphere. There was a connection that day, and that season, that I never felt anywhere.
“It was not spectators or fans paying to see handball players, it was more them coming to see us represent them. You'd look at them during the breaks, and there would be something special in their eyes. I get shivers just by thinking about it."
Sharing the experience with Gaudin and Kervadec
The party, afterwards, was something to remember. 20,000 people gathered on the city square to celebrate the trophy, which felt special for many reasons to Joël Abati. First of all, the fact that he was enjoying those good times with two compatriots, goalkeeper Christian Gaudin and line player Guéric Kervadec.
“Gueric and I went first, in 1997, and at that point, a lot of people were wondering what I was going to do in eastern Germany, but I was really looking for a challenge and nobody was going to tell me what to do. I'm happy we managed to write the club's history.”
Writing history for German handball
Another piece of history SC Magdeburg wrote in 2002 was one of German handball. "For the eastern Germany handball fans, this win felt like they were finally recognised. Both sides of Germany complete each other, but it wasn't obvious that we were going to win something at some point.
“We weren't necessarily the best team that season; we had just lost Henning Fritz to THW Kiel. But we were a unit, and no-one could break us. In this final against Veszprem, we felt untouchable, because we knew that the guy next to you would die for you on the court. I gained friends, genuine friends, in this adventure, not only teammates."
Sadly for the "Green and Reds", this Champions League would be their last to date, since the year after they lost to Flensburg-Handewitt in the quarter-finals.
"Handball can bit a little bit unfair"
But even if he's been retired from handball since 2009, Joël Abati still has an accurate view of the game today and he cannot believe Veszprem still has not won the competition.
“They've been building a team for fifteen years and still haven't managed to do it. Handball can be a bit unfair sometimes, when I saw them lost again in Cologne, I couldn't believe it. It's like they're cursed or something,” he analyses before admitting he would have liked to play in the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
“Of course, it's unbelievable. It's like pandemonium, a player's dream. Such an atmosphere, you play two games at an incredible level, it is 200% pleasure.”
Back in the 2000s, the EHF Champions League was very much about German and Spanish clubs, while the competition has become much more international lately with the emergence of new clubs from countries like FYR Macedonia and Poland, much to the delight of everyone, including Abati.
“It's great that the competition has opened its doors and that people from these countries have believed in handball.
“Who would have thought, ten years ago, that Kielce would win the trophy? No-one, and that's the magic of sport. Maybe PSG will manage to do it, but they have to know that success doesn't come overnight, it's a slow-building process and they have to be patient,” concludes Abati.
TEXT: Kevin Domas / cor