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EHF Champions League

This is me: Nenad Perunicic

ER 2842 (1)
EHF / Danijela Vekić

‘El Terminator’. One of the best players in the world, with two EHF Champions League titles, two-time Champions League runner-up, holder of 35 different national and individual trophies, winner of two bronze medals with FR Yugoslavia, former Serbia national team coach, and today the general director of Crvena Zvezda. Nenad Perunicic left his mark in the world of handball with his recognisable strong shots as a left back and passion that was leading him through life. Now, Perunicic talks about his life in his own words.

THIS IS ME: Nenad Perunicic

I am grateful for my path and everything I achieved because of handball.

If we turn back time, handball was one of the most popular sports in school. PE teachers and schools were equally important as first coaches as they were the ones who directed children to sports, based on their athletic ability. My hometown, Pljevlja, was always a sports city and many players come from there: NBA basketball players, handball players, athletics, and karate medal winners. We all trained in multiple sports at the time. We did not have internet or social media, we were all outside, playing on the court.

When I was little, Bruce Lee was very popular and we all loved karate. It is the first sport I tried together with my four-year older brother Predrag, and I stayed in for five years. Then the time came for athletics, basketball and handball. It was the most popular sport. On the outside court around 3,000 people used to come to the matches and to us kids, that was an additional boost to try handball. I even had multiple different training sessions a day, I just loved to train.

That fanatic love for training transferred to my professional career too. Whether it was football, concrete courts for basketball and handball, athletic tracks, school venues or drawn goals on the wall, it did not matter. I just wanted to be in motion.

Perunicic 3

When I was around 13, I decided to focus only on handball. I was playing for Rudar under the eye of my first coach Zoran Covic. My surroundings and my hometown had the biggest influence on the start of my playing career. From playing on the streets to playing football cards, we were always competitive. That is something you need in sports. Of course, the family had a great influence too. In the beginning that was my brother, who later switched to handball because of me. My family did not let me give up when I felt insecure or when I saw injustice.

To every athlete, to every person, family means the world. Without their support in every decision, every injury, every defeat and win, I think I would not be able to do everything I did. And in later years, that became my wife Tatjana and our sons Djordje and Petar. They did not choose handball, and I was secretly hoping it would be like that. Today, Petar lives in Italy and plays basketball, while Djordje did fitness and kickboxing. I am proud of what they become, smart young men with a lot of respect for everyone.

I am grateful to have them, they are my stronghold and my joy. It is not easy with my temperament and Tatjana is the one who kept me grounded through all these years.

To play handball, for me, meant leaving my home when I was 16. I grew up in surroundings where my father was the authority and he still is to this day. Looking back now, I don't know how he allowed me to make a decision at the time.

Official Predrag Perunicic

I was named the best player at Montenegro's junior championship and sometime later, in 1988, I took part in the inter-municipal youth sports games (MOSI games). That was a competition where every well-known athlete was competing for their cities in many sports. People from the handball club Jugovici noticed me during the warm-up and asked if would I join their club. I came home and I just said to my parents: “I am going to Kac.”

I went to HC Jugovic as they played the First Federal division at the time. I was the youngest one there and it was a club with one of the best handball academies. I was well accepted there and Jugovici is the place where I made that first important progress. I am thankful to coaches Covic and Branislav Zeljkovic for their work, especially Zeljkovic. He was also working with the national team, and he used to stay with us after training to work individually with us. Coaches like that are an important part of young players' development. Today, unfortunately, there are not many coaches like that.

Alongside that, I got an invitation to play for the national team in 1990. We were playing the Yugoslavia Trophy in Kikinda and I got under the radar of Professor Jezda (Jezidmir) Stankovic. As a junior national team player, I got a chance to play with many elite handball players like Sinisa Prokic, Dragan Skrbic, Nedjeljko Jovanovic, Igor Butulija, Iztok, Patrik Cavar, Veselin Vujovic, and Zlatko Saracevic. Unfortunately, some of them are not with us anymore. Those were the players I used to watch on TV and now I got a chance to learn from them.

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That opportunity opened doors to transfer. I got calls from Zagreb, Borac Banja Luka and Proleter, among others, but when I got the opportunity to sign for Crvena Zvezda (Red Star), that was it. Since I was a little kid I loved Zvezda, I was eight when I went to the Marakana for the first time and it stayed with me. And you know what's funny? I signed a contract while I was at the pool. I did not ask anything. What is the amount of the scholarship, for how long, and what are the conditions? I did not care about anything, I just wanted to play for Zvezda. And I did for three years.

I never wanted to leave Zvezda without a trophy, but it happened. I will never forget that final against Partizan in 1993 when we lost. That derby was something indescribable, something I don't think we will see soon in handball in Serbia. That is the toughest defeat in my career. I was full of emotions and I was determined not to leave. However, the club decided to sell me to PSG. The beginning of the 1990s was tough, unfortunately, we were witnesses to war and clubs from Serbia were under sanctions. In a way, I had to leave and on the other hand, my transfer helped Zvezda in financial terms.

I would not be me if I did not have another funny story about the transfer. Our club secretary, the legend of the club, Snezana Tufegdzic, who still works there, called me to tell me I had to go to Paris. I was still so emotional and told her I don't want to hear about it and asked her to lie that she could not reach me. Still, I had to face the facts and left.

Magd Team 2002

I went to Paris at 21. I was lucky enough to have our people there who helped me to adjust. Joining PSG was really the right decision for me. I wanted to prove myself in a such strong league. Already in the first year I was the top scorer in a league with many top players and top clubs like Montpellier and Nîmes. I was supposed to stay in PSG for two years, but some problems occurred. I have a strong nature and sometimes people did not understand me, and it all led to me leaving France to join Elgorriaga Bidasoa.

Today, I look at Irun as my home. Amazing people, a town that lives and breathes handball, with a very similar mentality to mine. I enjoyed my time there. I had a chance to play with world and Olympic champions like my friends Tomas Svensson and Oleg Kisselev. Do you remember when I talked about my love for training? I used to go to second-team training and then wait for my team to come.

That is how I got my nickname ‘El Terminator’ from the media, and it still sticks with me. It is connected to my performance on the court. I was young, at the peak of my strength, and I was giving my maximum in every match. I used to do shots from the centre or 14 metres, I was doing pirouettes, a lot of different things without a limit. Of course, in later years I paid the price with a shoulder injury but at the time I was not thinking about anything.

Nenad Perunicic

Everything fell into its pace in Bidasoa already in the first year. Maybe we were not the best team, but we had amazing team spirit. We were family. We won the Spanish championship and to crown the season the EHF Champions League.

We played the European final against Badel 1862 Zagreb, it was 1994. Those two matches were amazing, with a hot atmosphere. I am the type of player that gets additional motivation from the atmosphere, whether it is a positive one from your fans or a negative one from the opponents' fans. For me, that is the essence of the sport. That fierce battle for the trophy, against top clubs in top-tier competitions. Zagreb was and still is a club with history, with two European Champions Cup trophies.

In the first match at home, we won by 10 goals in an amazing atmosphere. We knew it was going to be even more interesting in Zagreb. Bad Blue Boys were still attending Zagreb matches, there were 12,000 people in the venue and you just knew it was going to be an incandescent atmosphere. Some people said they thought I would crack under the pressure, but I was even more stubborn to perform well. If you underestimate me, I will explode.

Despite losing 26:27 we raised the trophy in Zagreb. It meant a lot. All my first biggest successes are connected to Bidasoa. Not just to me, but to the whole club. We never thought it would be the club's first and last Champions League trophy. In the next season, we lost to Barcelona in the final. And, again, there is a special story about Barcelona that I will tell you later. Unfortunately, I was injured and could not deliver. The end of my story in Bidasoa came in 1997 when the factory Elgorriaga, the club's main sponsor, stopped giving financial support after the death of the owner, and the club had to let me go.

I got a call from Zvonimir Noka Serdarusic to come to Kiel, to play in the Bundesliga. I was ready to take that challenge. I don't want anyone to be offended as I had amazing coaches throughout my career – including Zoran Covic, Zoran Tuta Zivkovic, Professor Branislav Pokrajac, Nikola Guzva Jevremovic, Professor Jezda Stankovic, Juantxo Villarreal, Péter Kovács and Alfreð Gíslason – but Noka has a special place, we had similar nature and thinking.

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We wanted to win everything with Kiel. We were giving our best, we had three double crowns in Bundesliga but the EHF Champions League trophy kept slipping from our hands. In the 1999/00 finals, we lost, again it was Barcelona who stopped me from getting another trophy with my teammates. I think I maybe failed my team in the rematch against Barcelona. My nine-metre shot could have taken us to extra time but it ended being blocked. But you can't turn back time and I know that we all gave our best.

We were strong that season, I think we only had three defeats in both competitions. Just imagine a team with Staffan Olson, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lövgren. My teammates were the ones making me better. And I was so lucky to have the opportunity to play with so many star players in every club I chose.

I got a chance to stay in Kiel for four more years and we had a verbal agreement but stubborn as I am, I decided I didn't want to stay. That's when Kiel and I went to the court of justice. It was unbelievable, on Friday I was in the tribunal, fighting against the club and on the weekends I would give my best on the court, fighting for the club.

Perunicic 5

Things got untangled again with Barcelona in the story but I ended up in Magdeburg and spent three years there. In the 2001/02 season, I finally welcomed my second EHF Champions League trophy. We played against Veszprém with Zlatko Saracevic, Vlado Sola, Carlos Pérez, Mirza Dzomba… What a match that was. I believe they would have won that trophy if they had not been playing against us. We were extremely motivated, especially me and Ólafur Stefánsson; I think we scored almost 80 per cent of all goals. But I should not forget Joël Abati, Stefan Kretzschmar and Guéric Kervadec, of course.

Around that time my shoulder gave up and I had to have surgery. I was living with pain, I got 40 injections in one season just so I could play. Unfortunately, I realised I would never be the same again. I did not have that strong shot anymore and I was sad as I believed it. You know, I was always giving my best on the court and I did not want anyone to think I don't. That's why I always came back too soon after injuries. After my shoulder injury, I came back to the court two and a half months too early.

I spent one year in SG Wallau-Massenheim, then five months at Qatari club Al Ahli, where I played a few matches in the Emir Cup, and finished the 2005/06 season in Pick Szeged. Szeged is a great club, I have great memories from there and it is a club that grows.

Then finally the time came for Barcelona. My great friend Dragan Skrbic called me, then their doctor asked me what was wrong with me, and why I didn't come. It was my wife Tatjana who decided we were finally moving there. But let me go back in time, to all those mentions of Barça I made before. After Bidasoa, before Kiel and after Kiel, before Magdeburg, Barcelona was the one giving me offers to come.

Barcelona is the top club, the EHF Champions League winner and they wished to have me in the squad. I went to Barcelona on the fourth attempt after almost 10 years. I don't want to sound presumptuous and say I turned down Barça three times, but every time I had a chance to go there, my heart was saying no for different reasons. And I always followed my heart.

I remember when Valero Rivera told me if you turn down Barcelona once, there is no second chance. When he called me on the third attempt, when I picked up the call, we both started laughing. I finally got a chance to explain to him how I felt, and what was going on in each of those transfers when Barcelona called me.

Perunicic 2

Now when I look back, maybe I should have said yes on the first attempt. Maybe it would be better for my family and for my health but I liked challenges. My nature, which I already mentioned, and my principles, as much good as they brought me through my career, sometimes they caused me problems. I always was led by my emotions when choosing a club, I never looked for the best offer.

With the national team, I won two bronze medals, at the EHF EURO 1996 and 1999 IHF World Championship. When I think about it now, of course, those bronze medals are a great achievement. At the time, those medals felt like weights and failures in a way. Everyone was expecting gold. We were a quality team and I believe we could have achieved more than we did.

We did not play for three years at international level due to the sanctions of that unfortunate war and we missed the Olympic Games in 1992. Because of the result at the 1996 European championship, we missed the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Being an Olympian is something every athlete dreams of, I believe. I am grateful that I still got a chance to be part of the Olympic Games in 2000. I was preparing myself for that my whole life.

After a short stint at Algeciras, I returned to Crvena Zvezda in 2007 and I finally earned a trophy that was missing, even though it was not at the same level as it was in 1993. I could end my career in Zvezda and I wanted that but due to some family things, my father asked me to leave the club for that year. And I went to Podgorica, where I finally said goodbye to professional handball.

I had an idea of having a farewell match with all my former teammates in our hall Banjica in Belgrade but in the end, I gave up on this idea, and I still don't know why.

2020 EURO Coach

My coaching job started unexpectedly, as Crvena Zvezda ran into problems. I was in that role for almost 10 years. But with all things going on in the club, I was everything, not just a coach. You can't be focused on a job if you are doing 10 different things when trying to rescue the club you love.

I am sad in a way that I will probably never know what my coaching range or capacity is. However, I was completely tired and hurt from all the problems in Zvezda. I believe that was felt too in the Serbian national team, where I spent a year and a half at the helm. It was my moral responsibility after a bad result to leave, despite having support from the federation. I had a vision of introducing young players to the team, but I knew I had to leave.

I gave everything to Crvena Zvezda. I invested my private money when the club hit the wall, and the club was left with only two people – me and Snezana Tufegdzic. For three years we were trying to save the club from bankruptcy and we did not have any sponsor. It was my sacrifice as I jeopardised my family and my health. Feeling powerless and disbelief in how such a brand as Crvena Zvezda could end up in this situation left me feeling empty. Today, I am happy that we managed to rescue the club and I am proud to say Zvezda is now a stable club. I appointed my friend Dragan Skrbic as the president of the club as I got tired, and he is the fresh blood the club needs in the future.

Peruncicto Check Magdeburg Veszprem 15

The situation in handball in Serbia is not very good but there has been progress in recent years, especially in the financial situation. Vojvodina is doing a very good job but we still don't have a club for top-tier European competitions. I hope we will welcome a new handball boom in Serbia and see a club competing in the EHF Champions League or EHF European League. People still love handball and I believe if we see that, we will have a packed arena just like at basketball. We just need more support and strategy on how to return handball to its glory days. We have Dinamo Pancevo, Partizan, Metaloplastika, Radnicki Kragujevac… all clubs filled with talented players.

And I had a motto that I would like to pass on to all those young players: even when you give your best, you can lose. However, if you enter the court flightless, you lost already at the beginning. Fight, take responsibility and give yourself to this. Handball deserves it. Do everything today so you don't regret it tomorrow but be fair and honest. Everything passes, what is left behind you is what kind of person you were.


Nenad Perunicic
December 2022

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