The fiercest battles in EHF EURO history
This is the sixth article in the 'Battle for the Throne' series, looking back at handball's rich history on the eve of the Men's EHF EURO 2022.
When you fight for the throne, you have to win the most important battles — and there have been many, many top battles since the Men’s EHF EURO started in 1994. Here we present a selection of the six fiercest battles in history — men against men, nations against nations, or even men against nations.
Magnus Wislander vs Talant Dujshebaev
It was the battle for the throne in the early days of the EHF EURO — and when we talk about European championships, the winner was Magnus Wislander every time. Talant Dujshebaev was the first male to be awarded IHF World Player of the Year twice, he was world and Olympic champion (before he changed citizenship to Spanish), but he was never EHF EURO champion with Spain.
In 1996 and 1998, he made it to the final, but in 1996 he lost against his former teammates from Russia (though he was awarded MVP of the tournament), then in 1998 it was Sweden and Wislander — one of four players who were part of all four Swedish EHF EURO trophies. In 2002, Wislander was awarded MVP of the EHF EURO, after receiving the trophy as ‘IHF Player of the Century’ just ahead of Talant Dujshebaev two years earlier.
But one trophy is missing for world and European champion Wislander: he lost all three Olympic finals he played with Sweden.
In the end, Dujshebaevs have been EHF EURO champions with Spain: Talant’s sons Alex and Daniel in 2018 and 2020.
Nikola Karabatic vs Ivano Balic
In the late 2000s, this battle electrified the world of handball: Two maestros steered their national teams — and nobody could say whether Frenchman Nikola Karabatic or Croatian Ivano Balic were the better player. Balic was a five-time MVP of major tournaments (EHF EURO and World Championships), and was world (2003) and Olympic (2004) champion, but he never raised the golden plate at EHF EURO events.
Like Balic, Karabatic was twice MVP of both the EHF EURO and World Championship as well as three-time IHF Player of the Year, but in contrast to the Croatian, he already has 10 gold medals in his cabinet: three from the EHF EURO, three from the Olympic Games and four from the World Championship — and he is still on the court.
The history of major EHF EURO duels between the superheroes started in 2006, when France beat Croatia in the semi-final in Switzerland on the path to their first ever trophy. In 2008, Croatia were ahead of bronze medallists France, but lost the final against Denmark. In 2010, France won the final against Croatia and Balic & Co. again settled for second.
In between EUROs came Balic’s most painful defeat against Karabatic — in the final of the 2009 World Championship on home ground in Zagreb, when France took gold, and Balic threw away his silver medal. And finally, France and Karabatic and eliminated Balic and Croatia twice in Olympic semi-finals — at Beijing and London, going on to win the titles.
France and Sweden vs Arpad Sterbik (EHF EURO 2018)
It was one of the craziest EHF EURO stories ever: Officially, Arpad Sterbik had retired from the Spain national team, but the goalkeeping legend was on stand-by at home during the EHF EURO 2018.
The case of emergency occurred when Gonzalo Perez de Vargas was ruled out after an injury in the last main round match against Germany. Sterbik was flown to Zagreb — and like Caesar, he came, saw and conquered.
In the semi-final against France, Sterbik saved four penalty shots and played a crucial role in Spain making it to another EURO final, after he lost the 2016 trophy match against Germany. In the 2018 final, Sterbik replaced Rodrigo Corrales after 24 minutes and in the first 20 minutes of the second half, ‘the Spanish wall’ conceded only three goals.
The way to the first ever Spanish EURO trophy was paved, Sterbik was awarded MVP of the final — and he became EHF EURO champion with a playing time of less than 50 minutes.
Andreas Wolff vs Spain (EHF EURO 2016)
Another goalkeeper story, and again Spain are involved: For the fourth time, the Spaniards had made it to a Men’s EHF EURO final. For the fourth time, they lost, as they failed against a human wall named Andreas Wolff. Even in Germany, many did not know Wolff before the EHF EURO 2016, but after this final, every little handball goalkeeper wanted to be like him.
Wolff saved more than 50 percent of all Spanish shots, conceded only six goals in the first half. After Germany’s 24:17 win, he was awarded MVP of the final and best goalkeeper of the EHF EURO 2016.
Serbia vs Croatia (semi-final of the EHF EURO 2012)
One single match to mention as the fiercest battle is the 2012 semi-final in Kombank Arena in Belgrade — still the Men’s EHF EURO record holder in terms of spectators, with more than 20,000. It was not the best ever handball deli, but it was the most emotional match in EHF EURO history.
Hosts Serbia, the ‘Eagles’, flew to their first ever semi, while Croatia had to work hard to proceed. Backed by eight goals of the tournament’s MVP Momir Ilic and the saves of Darko Stanic, nicknamed ‘minister of defence’, Serbia beat their arch-rivals 26:22 after a 13:14 deficit at the break.
Despite the hot atmosphere on the stands, the players showed full respect and fair play on the court. “Those matches are what you are training for all your life,” said Balic. For Serbia, the semi victory was the highlight of the EHF EURO, as they lost the final against Denmark, led by nine goals from Mikkel Hansen, while Croatia took bronze again, beating Spain.
Sweden vs Russia (EHF EURO 2000 final)
It was the first ever and still only Men’s EHF EURO final decided in extra time — to be more precise, two extra-time periods. 6,000 fans at Zagreb’s legendary Dom Sportova saw a rollercoaster ride like never before — and almost never after.
Russia were ahead by 15:9 at the break, then the defending champions turned the tide, levelling the score at 18:18. The lead changed constantly until the end of the regular time, and current Slovenian national team coach Ljubomir Vranjes scored for Sweden to equalise at 24:24 20 seconds before the end.