It was only a week and one day ago, but it feels so distant now. This is an English version of my impressions of last Sunday’s epic achievement by Brazil’s #Guerreiras. A team that has accomplished something even greater than being World Champions: gaining the support and admiration of people outside Brazil, including Argentinians 😉
As I walked back to my apartment from Republic Square, in Belgrade, I would think about how to put in words what I had experienced only hours before. Mission impossible. I knew words would never be enough to describe what had happened in Kombank Arena.
Denmark and Poland had fought for the bronze medal on the first game of the day, but I barely remembered it. The battle was tough and both teams were fierce on the court. The Polish lead on the first half and the Danish made a great effort on the second half to overcome the result and with a fantastic Kristina Kristiansen (MVP of the game) took the lead and stole the medal from the team commanded by Kim Rasmussen.
19.467 spectators showed up at Kombank Arena to support Serbia in the fight for the World Championship title. It was a new world record of attendance for a women’s handball match (a record that was broke three times during the tournament!). The crowd was overwhelmingly loud and we all knew it would be an exciting game. Brazil was the rival. The South Americans had already made history and chased away what they called “the ghost of quarter finals”. They had been eliminated on that stage in both the World Championship in Brazil 2011 (against Spain) and on the London 2012 Olympic Games (against Norway). This time they beat Hungary in QFs (in double extra time!!!) and Denmark in SFs. They were the second non-European team that had made it into the final of a WC (South Korea won it in 1995).
I hurried to the media tribune to find a spot next to the Brazilian journalists, as usual. I found a seat in front of them, right behind Serbia’s bench, and sat down to enjoy the final of the World Championship. Not bad, huh? Security staff forced some spectators to move away from the Media tribune to allocate the Danish team; so I watched the game sitting right next to the bronze medalists. It was the place to be on that Sunday night in Belgrade, the place where Brazil would make history, once again.
Serbian fans were not shouting, they were roaring. The screams were deafening. The atmosphere was simply amazing. The teams finished their warm up and left the court to line up on one of the corners for the presentation. I could still see the fire in the eyes of the Brazilians. That fire that Dani Piedade had described in the press conference after having beaten Hungary, the South Americans were hungry for glory, just like the Serbians; but their inner fire made them stronger, they were ready to rumble. I personally think that the Norwegians and Polish suffered the harassment of the roars of the home crowd on their games against Serbia, but the girls coached by Danish Morten Soubak had no fear.
The IHF flag marched past first, then Andrea Lekić lead the parade of the Serbian team, followed by Brazil, whistled by the almost 20,000 spectators. The Balkans looked happy, nervous and excited; while the South Americans looked fierce and confident. I’m sure they were also nervous, but their eagerness to get the gold and the need to upset those local supporters was greater than any other thing. They had come to this final battle unbeaten, and they had not made it this far to fall on the last match…
I remember that the announcer read a fair play statement, something about not whistling the rival and paying respect to all players on court. He first read it in English and the crowd was calm, but when he read it in Serbian, they all started to whistle. Too obvious. How can you possible tame a home crowd, a packed stadium, when their team is only 60 minutes away from becoming World champion? They were, indeed, the eighth player. Serbia had a powerful team, but maybe not as much as the Brazilian.
Spanish referees Marín and García blew their whistles and the final match began. The roaring was so overwhelmingly loud that Ana Paula (Brazil’s CB) had to shout the play to Deonise (BRA’s RB) right into her ear. Duda, on the other side, had already understood the signals and nodded. I have no other words to describe the atmosphere but ‘unforgettable’. I couldn’t stop smiling as I was sitting behind the bars on the first row of the media tribune. Soubak’s girls had a great start but Serbia showed why they had made it this far as well. It was an intense game, a fantastic fight, exciting from the very first minute, two teams that showed their quality and left their hearts on every play. Serbia gave their best, but, as coaches usually say in press conferences after being defeated, Brazil was the better team on court.
The announcer encouraged the crowd every time Brazil had the ball and deafening screams made Kombank Arena tremble again. I was there to witness it all. They sounded as strong as thunder. I never imagined I would experience something like this in a handball match. I remember thinking that the Brazilians must have imagined that they were playing in their backyard or in an silent stadium. They looked so focused that it was evident that the whistling had no effect on them. I was quite right and I proved it when I heard captain Dara in the mixed zone after the game: “I told the girls in the dressing rooms: ‘Imagine this stadium as if it was empty and only the sound of our national anthem was playing’”. That’s when it all made sense.
There’s no doubt that the mental strength and confidence of this team was unbreakable, a very important part of the achievement. The pressure of the audience did not make Brazil hesitate and even when they were behind on the score they had the patience and intelligence to take the lead again, only minutes before the final whistle. Here’s how the IHF described the last moments: “90 seconds on the clock. Brazil scores for 21:20, missed shot by tragic hero Cvijic, Rodrigues hitting the net for 22:20, Pessoa saves again – the match was decided 55 seconds before the end. And while the audience was shocked, Brazil started their gold medal party.”
Just for that moment, I really wished I was Brazilian, to justify those tears streaming down my face. It is hard to describe such happiness for a team that is not my own, the pride I felt for them. As a South American, I felt represented by them and their courage, their hunger and their passion for the game and to defend their colors. This was the result of years and years of hard work, determination, sacrifice, perseverance. I must say I felt a bit jealous for their success, but in a good way; I clapped at their enormous achievement in complete admiration. Larissa, one of the press members from Brazil, was jumping right behind me while screaming ‘ACABOOOOOOOOU, ACABOOOOOOOOOOOU!!! SOMOS CAMPEÕES!!!!’ (it’s over!, it’s over! We are the champions!). I couldn’t help feeling happy for her too, and for the very few Brazilians that had flown to Serbia to witness an unforgettable moment for the handball of their nation, and for the history of handball itself. This alone was worth more than all the dinars and euros I had spent so far. This was priceless.
The players were in tears, of course. Some couldn’t even stand up from the floor. They all embraced each other and looked in awe, they jumped, laughed (as usual). They had just made history, they had just become World champions for the first time in a soil with a much bigger handball tradition than Brazil. World champions. WORLD. CHAMPIONS. After a few moments of celebration all players were invited to leave the court so that the podium could be built and the medal ceremony could rapidly begin. The Brazilians were extremely happy while the Serbians couldn’t stop crying. I remembered Lekić leaving the stadium hobbling only two days before, after beating Poland in the semifinals. The captain wanted to be a hero for the team and the nation and she played as if she wasn’t in pain. I wonder if she knows that she’s already a hero, an idol to all handball lovers, specially to new generations that will look up to her. Role model just like Damnjanović (best LB of the tournament), Tomasević and Cvijić (best LP of the WC), kids will want to be like them. That’s worth more than a second place.
A medal ceremony is always emotional. All three teams appeared on court, all players holding hands and walking in line. Tears were now uncontrollable. I looked at some of the most experienced players from the Brazilian team, like Alê, Deonise, Dara and Dani and they just couldn’t stop smiling and crying, their happiness was contagious. The trophy was handed out by IHF president Hassan Moustafa and “We are the champions”, by Queen, was played as usual, right before we heard the national anthem of Brazil for the last time that night. The South Americans also did the A capella version of “Celebrar”, a song that had accompanied them and gave them courage throughout the tournament.
I ran down to the mixed zone right after the ceremony. All volunteers lined up against a wall and clapped at each of the players that walked past by. Standing next to me was Malu, Brazil’s press chief, whom I had met in January in Spain during the men’s WC. All Brazilian players stopped to hug her before they ran to the showers. I was standing strategically next to her. Babi Arenhart, best goalkeeper of the tournament, couldn’t help but crying after she saw Malu, she gave her an endless hug, they were both in tears. She even gave me a hug and thanked me for having supported them. I was speechless; I was the one to thank to them.
I was waiting for someone very special at the end of that mixed zone. Once again, just like the days before, I received a huge hug from a true champion, Dani Piedade. Long story short, I met the LP for the first time in London 2012, where I was a Games Maker (volunteer). After a press conference I took a photo with her talked to her on the way back to the dressing rooms. This time after the QFs game against Hungary she was the designated player to attend the press conference and she told me that she remembered me from last July. From that day on, I hugged her in the mixed zone after every game and she would tell me ‘you’re our lucky charm!’. It was clear to me that they didn’t need any lucky charms to accomplish such an achievement, but she repeated it after the final: ‘I told you! You’re brought us good luck!’. Of course, this final hug was the most special one, a gold medal hanged from her neck; 15 months after having suffered an ischemic stroke that endangered her career. She’s what we could call a true ‘guerreira’.
Mayssa, a hero in the final match (4/8 saves, in key moments of the game), stood there talking to me too. I had seen most of the players on the previous days, after each game, so they all knew me by then. She kept on repeating: ‘I still can’t believe this, this must be a dream!’. She was as happy as a girl who visits Disney for the first time, her eyes no longer looked fierce and defiant. She still had a bandage on her hand. Only days before she had had a cut in her palm in a silly accident at the hotel. And yes, she’s a goalkeeper; those saves must have hurt like hell, but the medal on her chest was now more important than that cut.
Dara, the great captain, talked to the press while holding the trophy, she wouldn’t let go of it. Alê, World’s best player of the year, spoke to media from every nation. And I was right there, incredulous, feeling completely privileged. Duda, MVP of the tournament was running toward the dressing rooms from the press conference room. I had to stop her for a photo. Almost everyone who was still there did the same.
I met a Spanish journalist/student who was haunting players for photos. I took her with me down the corridor that led to the locker rooms. We were both looking for local hero Andrea Lekić. After waiting for almost an hour, we got the desired photo. The center back was happy with the silver medal hanging from her neck, and she was hobbling again. She said it was quite painful, I could see it in her eyes. She was almost hopping when she left the stadium to meet an excited crowd outside, asking for photos and autographs. Just like she wrote in her blog after the final, it will take a couple of days for the sadness to go away and only then she (they) will realize the magnitude of their achievement. A whole new generation has just been inspired by them.
I never imagined I would experience something as amazing as this World Championship. Although this post shows the opposite I’m really speechless. It will be hard to fall down to Earth again, to accept that it’s over! This whole experience was even greater than I thought it would be. I met some amazing people, saw Argentina playing better than ever against some of the World’s most powerful teams, I enjoyed Norway’s elegant and perfect handball, I got goosebumps watching the home team play in front of almost 20,000 people and I celebrated Brazil’s victory as if I was Brazilian, among other things. 2014, I’m waiting for you, bring it on!