This is me: Arpad Sterbik
Legendary goalkeeper, determined and genuine, who changed the standards between the posts. Holder of more than 30 trophies, including the 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2017 EHF Champions League titles, six national team medals, IHF World Player of the Year 2005, EHF Challenge Cup 2001 winner and a winner of countless domestic titles in Hungary, Spain and North Macedonia. It can only be Arpad Sterbik. In the new This is me series, Sterbik talks about the moments and memories of his illustrious career that led him to where he is today.
THIS IS ME: Arpad Sterbik
I grew up in Ada, a town where handball is a part of the town's history. It was one of the most popular sports there with much success, both in women's and men's handball. My father was playing handball and as a consequence, I was raised near the court. When nobody was able to look after me, my father took me with him to training and to be honest, it could not end in any other way.
There were not many options for me, I was not fit enough for football and handball is where I felt comfortable. At the start, I was a field player but very soon I stood between the posts. Back then, I watched many matches, especially ones in Ada and there was one goalkeeper I loved to watch at the time, his style and saves. He was Macedonian national team player Sandor Hodik. In a way, he is the reason why I decided to be a goalkeeper.
When I got a call from Jugovic I was very surprised. I come from a small town and I did not have many tournaments as kids have today. I was not aware of my quality and ability. The only matches I played as a child were school tournaments at the time. So, I was very honoured when I got a call from Kac. I used to watch them and I knew how good they were. Club director Dragan Vrgovic and Marko Krivokapic from Senta are some of the people I still connect with.
Jugovic had a young team, a good team where I saw myself, and where I believed I could make progress. I used to dream to play for the first team as I joined their academy when I was almost 16. I am very happy I made that decision. I was working hard and step by step I became one of the main players in the club. We were good and we knew we could play against every team.
That is why I am happy to say that I raised my first European trophy there, EHF Challenge Cup in 2001 against Pfadi Winterthur.
After Jugovic it was time to try something different and that is when Veszprem came to the story. It was a big step for me, it is a huge difference between Veszprem and Kac. I was eager to join the Hungarian powerhouse after I got their call. Again, I was so surprised they wanted me, in a such great club with tradition. My first memories are seeing Zlatko Saracevic, Bozidar Jovic, Mirza Dzonba and Carlos Pérez, players that just a few months earlier I was watching on TV playing EHF Champions League. To be among legends like them was unbelievable.
Already in my first year, we reached final of the Europe's top tier. Unfortunately, we lost to Magdeburg. It was really hard. We played well that season, and I don't want to say we reached that final easily, but we were really good. Veszprem had a new team and it was a good mixture of youth and experience. We felt our team spirit and we believed we can win against anyone. The final was amazing and maybe the lack of experience was standing in a way of the trophy.
Magdeburg was a top team with Nenad Perunicic, Stefan Kretzschmar, Olafur Stefansson and Joël Abati, they were like a world national team. And even though we beat them in the group phase, they got their revenge in the final.
I spent three years in Veszprem and life led me back to it 13 years later, it is still my home today. But unfortunately, I never managed to win that trophy with them. In 2004 I moved abroad for the first time in my life. As I was born near the border of Hungary and Serbia, in a Serbo-Hungarian family, speaking both languages, for me Hungary was not a foreign country.
Ciudad Real was my first take on far from home and I was thinking a lot about should I do it or not. It turned out it was one of my best decisions in life. The start in Ciudad Real was weird for me. It was an Olympic year and most of the players were with the national team, it was only a few of us at the training. I left Veszprem with Mirza Dzomba and he was one of those players. Let's say we Balkan players were together all the time.
The plan, idea and vision of Talant Dujshebaev were amazing. And it was proved by being on top for so many years. I have such vivid and great memories from that period, it is even hard to tell them all. It was an honour to play and to hang out with coaches and players there. And I believe we deserved everything we won. All our efforts were rewarded with three EHF Champions League titles.
It is hard to pick a favourite one but I think you always remember your first. Every player dreams of the EHF Champions League trophy. Especially when you join a club and a team that has a chance to make it to the top. It does not matter if you win it soon, in five or ten years, but it gives you confidence and boosts you to be better. Your opponents challenge you every time.
My first Champions League trophy from 2006 is really close to my heart. We talked a lot about it and it turned out we won it really easily. We faced our fellow Spanish opponents in Portland San Antonio and beat them by a 15-goal difference on aggregate. I was so happy, you can't express those feelings.
Of course, the other two European titles have been very important. After being a champion, we missed that opportunity the following season and we knew we have to get back stronger. It turned out Kiel was our 'victim' for two years straight. In 2008 we lost to Kiel in the first match of the final. We had to put on the best performance for the rematch and we managed to do so. We won by six goals and once again celebrated the title. Against a club that was amazing, a team of the best players.
A similar scenario was repeated the following year but in a more dramatic way. We lost in an away match by five goals and we knew a huge task will be in front of us at home. But we believed. Every match has its special story and beauty behind it, we had a great time there. It is sad that the Ciudad Real/Atlético Madrid story ended in the way it did but with time, the team was weaker and Barca became number one in Spain.
My time in Spain did not come to an end, I also joined Barca. Playing there was a gift for me. We all know what is Barca, from the organization of the club, coaches and staff to the players. Those two years were very interesting. If you ask me today, I still don't know how we did not win the Champions League. It's a mystery. We lost against Flensburg in the semi-finals after having a good lead throughout the match. We were really unlucky that day. A year before we lost to Hamburg. I believe we deserved to lift it at least once.
I was in Barca for only two years but it felt longer. I have so many friends and nice memories, full of emotions I still remember.
In 2014 I decided to get back closer to home and my family after ten years of living in Spain, that's why I joined Vardar. I really liked the plan Sergey Samsonenko had, a story about the team that could be a European contender. I remember I got a call from Indira Kastratovic if I could recommend some players for Vardar and in the end, it turned out they wanted me. Everyone from the club explained the idea, plan, coaches, players, and everything that later turned out to be Vardar. We quickly made a deal.
It was such a great selection of players and we really had great team spirit. We managed to do great things and we reached the glory when no one expected it.
Skopje lives for sport. They are fanatics for all sports, not just handball and Vardar. I admire the people there. They were our strong support in good and in bad. Four years, completely unforgettable.
Every player knew their task, and every player was trying to give their best. When I came in the first year, it was not all professional as it was later on. But every day, every week, we all were developing together, giving our maximum effort to dream big. Of course, there were hard times, we all know, but we had an amazing team captain Stojanche Stoilov who was holding everything together and was a connection between all of us.
I never thought I would win the Champions League again, even though you believe and dream, and I never thought it would be my last one too. That 2017 was magical. In Cologne at the EHF INAL4, everything is possible. Of course, when you qualify for the final tournament, you believe and arrive ready but also you have to be real and say there are better teams than you.
Against Barca, in the semi-finals, we were waiting for our five minutes to shine and to trick them, and we made it. We won by one goal in one crazy match. I remember coming to the hotel late in the night and I asked our head coach Raúl González about the final against PSG the next day, and what are we going to do, tactics, style of play; he looked at me and said: ''Let's watch the UEFA Champions League finals between Real Madrid and Juventus, then I will have the whole night to prepare for that match.''
And he did prepare it. Maybe even PSG underestimated us but nevertheless, we had a great team then. Today, every player is in a top European club which proves our quality. We won against PSG by one goal, again in one crazy match and it was an explosion of joy. Not only between us in the club, but also in Skopje and among handball fans. We were welcomed by huge reception, something you never forget.
During all this time, from Jugovici to Vardar, I was also working on my national team career which is equally interesting. Now, when I am retired, I can only regret I have not won an Olympic medal. I was dreaming I will win it in London in 2012 with Spain. We were leading against France in the quarter-finals but they stopped us in the very end. It was their only lead in the match when they scored for a place in the semi-finals.
Other than that, I am proud of what I achieved, both with Serbia (FR Yugoslavia) and Spain. I participated in many international tournaments, won gold and three bronze medals at the World Championship and won both gold and silver at the EHF EUROs. If someone told me all that at the start of my career, I would never believe it. There are so many top players who haven't won some of those medals.
Each medal is special, and they have positive and negative feelings. Like the silver medal from Poland 2016, yes we have a medal but I will never forget that final against Germany They overrun us when no one thought they can make something, they were like underdogs who went all the way. One of my dearest medals is the one from 2013 when we became world champions in Spain, in front of our fans against Denmark.
The story from Croatia in 2018 is a special story, like a fairytale or a joke, I don't know how to put it. The unfortunate injury of Rodrigo Coralles brought me to the semi-final from my living room in a way, and we won gold. If you ask me, I never felt like that was my success, it was the team's, of the guys who went through all preparations and were fighting for it on the court.
I remember my phone rang late in the night, and I thought the guys were messing with me and I went to bed. I woke up the next morning for a doctor's appointment, and again a call, I picked up and asked what is going on. When they told me I was shocked and already a few hours later I was on the plane.
That 2018 also marked my comeback, let's say home, to Veszprem.
In the first year when I got back, we had a good opportunity to win the Champions League, but we were unfortunate. I was injured after the semi-finals, and Laszlo Nagy too, who was very important in our attack, and it certainly had an impact on the whole team. And I lost to Vardar…
During my second year in Veszprem, everything changed. I did not get to the EHF FINAL4 to try to win my fifth title. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped almost the whole world from turning and in a way sped up my retirement.
To be honest, I was already thinking about my retirement before the pandemic struck and I knew I wanted to retire. I had a deal with the coach and the club, if we find two good goalkeepers, I will say my farewell to playing. We brought Vladimir Cupara, who was playing alongside me, and after a long period, we convinced Rodrigo Corrales to join. So, with two great goalkeepers, I finally was able to rest.
It takes a lot of effort to be on a high level, and to train, I needed my time to be on the same high level I used to, and I just felt it is not the same anymore.
I am lucky I have full support in my family, in my wife Mónika and our kids Laura and Noel. They enjoyed their time living abroad with me, they meet new friends and were happy, both in handball, schools and the towns we lived. Sometimes it was harder for me to change surroundings than to them. That is why having your family near you, and supporting you, it's one of the most important parts when you live the life of a player.
Both of my kids also found their love in handball, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. But kids are being kids, we will see. Right now, both of them are left back players, even though my son says he is good as a goalkeeper also. I don't put any pressure on them, I just want them to enjoy their time at training, with friends and take their time. If they decide to stay and chose that path, they will have my full support.
Just like I am a support to my former teammates in Veszprem. I stayed in the club as a goalkeeper coach even though I had never thought of it before. I knew I didn't want to be a coach but with this job now, helping the goalkeepers, I am satisfied. The club asked me if I would like to stay and I am very happy I have a chance to work with Corrales and Cupara. They are both great goalkeepers, a good duo and people. We have good times at the training and that is what matters.
I hope they will also learn something from me just like I did from every coach I had during my career. I had so many great coaches from my first handball steps right until the end of my career and it is really hard to single out just one.
I will mention Zoran Tuta Zivkovic, he was the one giving me a chance in the national team with Yugoslavia, a chance I believe not a lot of coaches would be allowed today to give to a young goalkeeper as he did to me. I was a 19-year-old debutant at the World Championship in 1999 in Egypt and he trusted me. It means a lot.
Everyone keeps asking me what was my secret between the posts. I still don't know what to say to that question. There are many faster, better and harder workers, with better reactions but I was strong mentally. I kept motivating myself, finding new motivation where there was none. I knew it was going to be good if I felt nervous in my stomach before the game, if there was a fear we might lose that game, I kept building pressure on myself. Everything is in a positive way.
For example, I remember playing against Rhein-Neckar Löwen and I did not have that feeling, and the media asked me before the match what is going to be a key to winning and I told to myself: ''The team with the better goalkeeper is going to win. So it's going to be Landin or me.''
Every athlete needs to have great motivation and that is the key to success, you should not only look at the money in the bank, even though for someone that can be motivation too. An athlete wants to give their best on the court and, feel good on the court and with their teammates. To work together for one goal.
I would like to say to young players and goalkeepers in handball, to go step by step. To enjoy the 40x20 meters and work hard to achieve their dreams. Do not lose faith, trust the process. Just like stairs, you cannot skip steps in your life. I started my handball journey in elementary school and at the time, my biggest dream was to play in front of a sold-out arena, later it was to join the first team, then the first title… Give yourself the motivation to go step by step. It will give you an opportunity to dream big to achieve those desired goals.