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"The class is eternal"

NAGORE ODRIOZOLA | Budapest, June 2023

The mentions of Andrea Lekić (Belgrade, 1987) on her social media must have been burning even hotter than usual last Saturday night. The international handball community was probably still processing the masterclass the Serbian had just given in front of more than 20,000 souls on the MVM Dome's court in Budapest. Among them, it was me, even if I am not sure how I ended up there. The only thing I'm sure of is that I was in complete ‘shock’ when I left the stadium. After a decade dedicated to working on handball, it was the first time I was attending a stadium just for fun, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a handball game that much.

Fradi’s epic comeback against Team Esbjerg in a European semi-final, culminating with that goal right on the buzzer by Emily Bölk, was just pure craziness. The German player had to feel the crowd's outburst to realize that the ball had indeed gone in, and she had just sent her team straight to the final of the EHF Champions League for the first time in the long history of the club.

I remember the euphoria and the screams in the stands. And the irremediable tears, the hugs between ones and others, familiars and strangers, it didn't matter. Meanwhile, the Ferencváros players on the court were also doing exactly the same. The incredulity on the faces of some of them was remarkable, a mix of how extraordinary what just happened was and the unlikely way they had achieved it. Probably not even in their wildest dreams would they have imagined winning a historic semifinal of the most prestigious club championship in the world in such an exciting way. I have no certainty about this, but no doubts either.

Among all that sea of messages and phrases that were dedicated that night to the ‘master’ of Belgrade, the one that captivated me the most was coming from her friend and former teammate Itana Grbić. The Montenegrin star said the following: "The shape is something transitory, the class is eternal" and I felt there was no better way to sum it up.

Once I passed the initial post-match 'shock' and as I was going back to the hotel by metro, I felt the urge to interrupt the trip and come to the surface to walk the last stretch. Unexpected, I bumped into a former coach of mine from ages ago and, for whatever reason, he also had it very clear in his analysis of the match: "The game the centre-back has just played, it's been absolutely impressive," he told me referring to the Serbian. "The 77, I can't recall her name right now", he added. I turned around, showed him the back of my dress attire, and he said, "Lekić, that's it, Lekić. Just outstanding." I smiled slightly, full of a non-sense pride, and kept thinking about that. Certainly, the playmaker's performance had been a lesson in itself from the beginning until the very end. I think that's the reason why Grbić's words sounded so appropriate after all.

Credits: Nikolett Nasz @nasznikolett

In fact, the path that the IHF World Player of The Year 2013 had to go through to be back in the Olympus of continental competitions was not exactly a bed of roses/walk in the park. I recall how in 2018 we witnessed one of the cruellest defeats she has suffered in her entire career. I guess we all remember the final of the EHF Final 4 taking place at the Papp László Sportaréna in Budapest in front of more than 12,000 spectators. The famous spin shot goal by Lekić, with only 22 seconds left, helped Vardar take the lead by the minimum against 'Győr'. It still remains clear in our memory how Vardar seemed to be lifting the trophy but it finally didn’t happen. The player from Belgrade ended up being her team's top scorer (6) but, unbeknownst to her right then, that would be her last appearance in an EHF Final 4.

Yes, it indeed took a lot of hard work for her to overcome what happened in Budapest that year. I know it firsthand from a talk I had with her a month later in the small Serbian town of Vrnjačka Banja. But this belongs only to the past; a lot more has happened since then and this somehow became a part of the precious legacy of one of the most important players in handball history

* * *

Five years later, I am writing from Budapest, immersed in an emotional hangover from which it won't be easy to get out. I guess that Sunday's defeat (28:24) in the last battle of the EHF Final 4 against Vipers Kristiansand must have felt more painful for FTC for the way it happened rather than for the result itself. And probably for Lekić’s injured shoulder as well, which hopefully will heal soon. But what hurts today, I am sure tomorrow will be just another reason to once again get up and keep going.

Credits: Nikolett Nasz @nasznikolett

In an interview with the colleagues of @womenshandball, she mentioned how during the Vardar era they somehow got used to reaching the closure of the ‘Champions’. Certainly, the magic tends to get lost when the extraordinary becomes commonplace, so this is probably why the historic qualification achieved in France against Metz tasted like glory, ecstasy, even some kind of relief, and definitely extreme happiness. Perhaps not so much of a surprise, because if we take a look at the development of the Hungarian side’s season, the ups and downs have been constant. Overcoming the blows has also been the bread and butter for FTC though. I witnessed how the team from Budapest rolled over 'Győr' in the 'Magyar classic' played in the capital in December. 'Fradi' is a team that has been capable of the best and the worst this season, but they have been able to strengthen themselves and compete at the highest level in the moment of truth. Proof of this was, for example, the resounding success in the Magyar Cup final, in which they defeated Győr once again, this time by the minimum (28-27).

Credits: Nikolett Nasz @nasznikolett

But back to their performance in the EHFCL, "the craziest second half of my life" was how Lekić described the last 30 minutes Fradi played in Metz. The Hungarian team lifted the 6-goal deficit they were trailing from the first leg, in just one period of the match. So, it seems that the epic has become the norm for Gábor Elek's team this season.

"Anyone in my place would have decided to play too"

It's not too good to live anchored in the past, but I do think it's always nice to remember the road we've travelled so far. Mainly to take some perspective and be aware of how hard we have worked and fought to get to where we are now; to value the present time much more. And this is probably why I still keep an image from 10 years ago intact in my mind. It belongs to the post-game after the final of the World Championship of Serbia played at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade. Andrea Lekić, the captain of the host team at that time, was coming out of the locker room limping. With a silver medal around her neck, a medal she had received for being runner-up, wrapped in a Serbian flag, full of bags... but yes, notoriously limping.

Back at the time, I was unaware of what had happened, but today we all know Lekić had played a World Cup final in terrible conditions. "The worst nightmare of my entire career", she labelled it in an episode of our friends’ podcast, (Un)informed Handball Hour. The Balkan player dislocated her ankle in the last second of the semifinals against Poland, and the doctors told her that she had to stop playing for at least 4 to 6 weeks. The risk, apparently, was too high to keep playing in the tournament. The captain had been her team's best player not only during that match, in which she scored eight goals and led them to the final but during the whole tournament. "Anyone would have decided to play", she said in that same podcast episode. She had to inject herself with painkillers before the final against Brazil and also during the half-time break, and even so, she played limping. That's why I later saw her leave the locker room in those conditions. "I would never have allowed myself not to play in front of my nation, being a world final in Belgrade, in my hometown, in front of more than 19,000 people. But, indeed, I was psychologically devastated because my situation also affected the team negatively and I knew I would not be able to be at the required level for such an important match".

Credits: Nagore Odriozola

Despite all of that, and although she admits that remembering those moments will always "provoke some negative feelings", the pride and gratitude for the "outstanding progression the Serbian team had during those few years" will always be higher than any contrary memories for her.

From this one, and several other situations I know she has come through without making too much noise. This leads me to wonder how important it is not to judge those who give one’s all on the court, as no one actually knows the reach of someone else's pain more than oneself.

Credits: Nagore Odriozola

Keeping positive despite all the rocks on the way, sensible and full of faith, Lekić has always advocated "believing in miracles". But miracles don't happen just out of the blue. In fact, she said something that I have kept with me ever since that talk in 2018 in Vrnjačka Banja and it reflects the kind of mentality that brought her to get that far in her sports career. I remember her exact words were: "One always has to be prepared because life can change in a twist, for better or worse. So, the point is that you need to be ready. If you prepare yourself for it, you will know how to manage it, you will be able to adapt, and you will get through it". Perhaps this is how, after all, and despite everything, last Sunday, 4th June 2023, she was once again playing the final of the EHF Champions League in what is undoubtedly the most beautiful stadium I have ever been to. Plus, it was happening just a decade after the World Cup final mentioned above, and again while being part of a new world attendance record (there were 19,467 people in Belgrade and 20,022 in Budapest). Coincidences do not exist in this life so, such a success is plain and simply the fruit of a life dedicated to this sport we are all in love with.

During the last EHF Women’s European Championship, I had the chance to listen to many players, and from all of them, I heard that the most challenging thing is to stay long in the elite. Because, after all, 'anyone' can get there, but remaining at the top requires a lot of many things, and it is probably the hardest to achieve. How many of them have we seen, unfortunately for whatever reason, closing this chapter earlier than we would have liked or expected? The effort and dedication of those who stay there, despite everything, is already a success in itself, and Lekić has reaped a considerable amount of all that. The books or statistics will indeed remember the titles and the numbers (as of today, she is the fourth highest scorer in the history of the EHF Champions League with 950 registered goals, behind only Anita Görbicz -1016, Cristina Neagu -1029 and Jovanka Radičević -1069)** but most likely, people will remember the athlete who made them vibrate, feel every kind of emotion and get excited while on the court.

Credits: Ferencváros TC

They will never forget the athlete who gave her all for their shield and colours, nor the one who cared about the coming generations and left them a legacy for the good of our sport. And, of course, they will forever keep the memory of the human being behind the athlete if they ever had the opportunity to get to know her. They will definitely remember the person who kept getting up over and over again, no matter how many times, no matter how high the obstacle in front.

* * *

"It's like watching an orchestra director", an old friend and colleague told me some years ago. We were in a small café in the centre of Belgrade, near Knez Mihailova, one of the busiest avenues in the city. That beautiful simile left me thoughtful. He was right. The subtlety in some of her movements, that arm raised to direct her teammates, marking the tempo, with a serene gaze and, above all, with that creative and surprising capacity that thrills the audience so much.

"Don't you think it is crazy how she gets to connect with the pivot through one of those impossible passes?" he asked me. "What can I say", I thought as we laughed in unison. We chatted for no less than four hours, and I left the coffee place feeling that I had just confirmed something that was actually easy to intuit: the achievement of going down in history as a legend of our sport is not within everyone's reach. But the fact is that Grbić is right; class is eternal, and Andrea Lekić is undoubtedly a chosen one.

Budapest, 06-06-2023

** The goals scored by the Montenegrin Bojana Popović are not properly registered in the official databases, therefore, unfortunately, we cannot know whether or not she is also among these names, or what place in the ranking she would occupy as of today

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