Mixed feelings of a handballing nation

Mixed feelings for the Romanian handball movement on Sunday, as the Men’s World Championship concluded in Sweden. On one hand, the Romanian team ended up on an all-time-low 19th place, with France equalizing the Romanian record of 4 world titles. On the other hand, young Cristina Neagu was awarded the title for the world’s best women’s handball player of the year 2010.

Yes, the phrase “Romanian record of world titles” is no mistake. Romania was the first nation to win today’s record number of world titles in men’s handball history, four. They won in 1961, ’64, ’70, ’74. Sweden completed the number in 1999, and France in 2011. Watch below a snippet from the 1970 final (Romania in dark outfits), showing some of the magic of Cristian Gaţu, “handball’s Pelé”, or the sheer power of Gheorghe Gruia, as they say the man with the most fierce shot of all times.

There was a time when “Romanians were teaching handball to the world”, and that both metaphorically and literally – many Romanian coaches were invited (or fled the Communist regime) to teach handball abroad, most notably in France and Spain, recent world champions.

Since 1990 however tides have turned, the 3rd place at the Czech world cup being the last notable performance. After a long absence, the Romanians returned this year at the world championships, coached by one of the former world champion stars, Vasile Stângă. It didn’t start out too bad, leading favorite Croatia and to-be-finalist Denmark at half time, losing however in weak second halfs. The real shock came however when they lost 15-14 against Algeria, again after leading at half time. Catapulted them on place 19, after barely beating Tunisia for the place. The team is a sad ghost of a glorious past, but glory has not entirely left Romanian handball. And like so many times in Romanian sports, it is the ladies who make the (positive) difference.

Before the men’s final on Sunday, the International Handball Federation awarded the title of “best world player in 2010”, for men and women. The ladie’s title goes to Cristina Neagu of Romania. The youngster (22 years old) has “exploded” at senior level this season under the calm guidance of her former world champion (as a player) coach of the national and club team, Radu Voina.

It’s not like she hasn’t given signs of her outstanding skill before. She received the Most Valuable Player title at the European and World Youth and Junior Championships in 2005, 2007 and 2007, was the IHF World’s Best Rookie of the year 2009.

She is by no means a lonely star in a generation of extremely talented players. Her team Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea reached the European Champions League final this year, losing to the multinational title machine headquartered in Viborg, Denmark (employing another world class Romanian handballer, national team captain Cristina Vărzaru, also a gifted writer).

Cristina Neagu left her mark most at the European Championships in December, where she was the best goalscorer, had most assists (!) and featured in the All Star Team.

Watch some of the highlights below. Congratulations Cristina!

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