“I don’t realize it yet”: The “King of Cologne” rules the world of handball

“I don’t realize it yet”
The “King of Cologne” rules the world of handball

The teammates express their appreciation, the national coach is full of praise: Nikola Karabatic has also left his mark on the 2024 European Handball Championships. The 39-year-old is leading the French to a major title for the eleventh time. But a goal is still waiting.

Nikola Karabatic was one of the last. Long after the final whistle of the final thriller against Denmark, his last act on the big European Championship stage, the new “King of Cologne” was tumbling across the field of the Lanxess Arena. Karabatic signed autographs, took selfies and enjoyed the golden moments after the triumph with his French team like no other. “It’s so unreal. I don’t realize it yet, I feel like I’m on a little cloud,” said Karabatic: “It’s just magical. When you’re a top athlete, you dream of experiencing moments like these.”

Karabatic has already experienced a few of these moments. The French had already triumphed at European level in 2006, 2010 and 2014 – Karabatic was on the floor for every title. This time it was special even for him, as the final on Sunday (33:31 after extra time) was his 80th (!) and last European Championship game.

With a broad victorious smile, Karabatic lifted the golden European Championship bowl into the air, then sang along to the Marseillaise with abandon. “I would like to have a last dance like that at the end of my career,” said teammate Kentin Mahé and described the three-time world handball player as an “absolute role model. When we see how he gets in.” It was an “absolute honor” to play with him.

Paris is not (yet) an issue for Karabatic

Karabatic came clean again at the European Championships. At the age of 39, he was usually in the starting line-up of “Les Experts” and became the European Championship record scorer before Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen missed them by one goal in the final – which shouldn’t matter to Karabatic in view of the crazy collection of titles that has once again been expanded: four European Championships title, four World Championship gold medals and three Olympic victories. Not to mention the three Champions League wins.

National coach Guillaume Gille, who was the superstar’s long-time companion first as a player and now as a coach, probably had extra praise for him for this reason. “Nikola has an incredible winning mentality. He always goes forward and takes the boys on the right path. That’s really cool,” said Gille after winning the title again. “With his many gold medals, he stands alone,” said Gille, adding: “The title is a huge recognition for his work and his ability to maintain this high level over all these years.”

Karabatic, meanwhile, had “only one wish” when he reached the catacombs, completely exhausted but smiling blissfully: “To go to the locker room, meet my teammates, drink a beer with them, sing and enjoy this moment, because We deserve it.” Since his debut in November 2002, the now 39-year-old has made more than 350 international appearances for the Équipe Tricolore, and will add a few more before he calls it a day in the summer: at the Olympic Games in Paris.

“It’s a relief when you know that it’s over after that. Because as a professional athlete you’re always thinking about the next game, the next competition, you put yourself under pressure,” Karabatic said during the European Championships. He, who once promised himself to become “the best handball player in the world,” has long since won everything there is to win. But that in no way diminishes the ambition to leave with Olympic gold in our own country. “We know that we still have a big goal in the summer. France will be behind us.”

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