Two days ahead of the handball Olympic qualifier (12-14 March), where France will fight for a spot at Tokyo 2020, France's double Olympic champion Nikola Karabatic spoke about his team's chances, his return to the pitch and the 2021 World Championships that were won by Denmark and his friend Mikkel Hansen.
Last October, during a French handball league game between PSG and Ivry, Nikola Karabatic left the field earlier than expected after landing badly on his leg. The verdict? A ruptured right anterior cruciate ligament. Five months later, the French double Olympic champion is on his way back, but he still has several weeks of recovery ahead of him.
He won’t be able to compete in the handball Olympic qualifier from 12 to 14 March in Montpellier (France), where France will try to secure a spot at Tokyo 2020. But the three-time Player of the Year (2007, 2014 and 2016) answered Tokyo 2020’s questions about a tournament he himself experienced, in 2008 before winning his first Olympic title in Beijing.
He also spoke about when he hopes to return the pitch and his determination to fight for a spot on the French team - if they manage to finish among the top two teams in a qualifier that Portugal, Croatia and Tunisia are also competing in.
The 36-year-old player also spoke about France's fourth-place finish at the 2021 World Championships (13-31 January 2021), which he watched from his couch instead of leading his team to victory, as he has done on four occasions (2009, 2011, 2015, 2017).
On his rehab, comeback plans and Tokyo 2020
"The recovery is going well, the physios are happy and so am I. I’ve been running again every morning since the beginning of February. It’s good to get out of my house and train. I’m jumping and working on my footwork and I also practice passing to regain my handball moves. I’m pretty happy! I train over three or four hours a day. I’ve actually been training more since I've been injured than when I’m not! It’s a long process but I need to trust my knee and my body. We progress every day and it’s interesting.
"As far as my comeback goes, the club doesn’t want to set a date. I’ll go with my feelings and those of my coach. But the staff hope I’ll make a comeback around May/June. My goal is to play a couple of games for PSG before the season ends.
"[If France qualify], I don’t know if I’ll be 100 per cent fit but that’s my goal. I want to be ready to prepare for the Games and have the chance to fight for a place in the team. They will be pricey [tough to get] as there are only a few of them."
"There won't be a home advantage anymore for the tournament hosts as there won't be any spectators. But after what they [the French team] did in the World Championships, we feel reassured. We also saw that it didn’t go so well for our opponents.
"Croatia didn't play very well in their games and their coach has resigned. However, they will still be dangerous.
"We beat Portugal in our best match of the tournament, so even if they are also dangerous and they play very well, we might have the mental advantage. But they have many great players. They defend well and know how to play seven versus six quite well. Their goalkeeper is also great.
"[During the World Championships], we didn’t have any pressure on us as there wouldn't have been any consequences if we'd lost, whereas they needed to win and the pressure was on them. That day, everything went well for us but we can’t think it’s gonna be as easy as the World Championships.
"We also saw Tunisia play with quality in their games, especially against Spain.
We'll need to be on our toes, but we're heading to the qualifiers with more confidence."
France's handball icon Nikola Karabatic has won everything there is to win in his sport many times over. The PSG superstar is hoping for one more shot at Olympic glory after teariing the ACL in his right knee in October of last year. The tiring rehab is worth the pain. "I want to be ready to prepare for the Games and have the chance to fight for a place in the team. That will be tough as there are only a few spots," he tells us.
Watching the World Championships from his couch and the French team
"[After the draw and loss against Serbia], of course, I was doubtful. The level, tactics, confidence and energy that we showed weren't that great. But the victory against Norway (28-24) - one of the favourites - changed a lot of things and our confidence came back.
"After that game, we alternated between good matches against Portugal, for instance, to matches where we came close to losing. I’m thinking about Iceland (28-26), Algeria (29-26) where it was tight, or Hungary (35-32) where we were chasing the result and won in extra-time.
"At the end of the day, a fourth-place finish was great for the team. The three nations ahead of us (Denmark, Sweden and Spain) were better. But it bodes well for what's coming next. This position shows that there are potential and talent, and that there is a lot of work to do but we can achieve great stuff.
"[Not playing] was tough at first, but I got used to it. I accepted that I wouldn’t play in the World Championships or the other competitions.
"I couldn’t do anything about it, it was out of my control. From that moment onwards, it was ok. I’ve experienced those World Championships as a supporter, as a member of the team with his friends on the field, not being able to play. At the end of the day, I had a nice adventure in front of the TV, watching them reach the semi-finals when they were not expected to go that far after their bad matches against Serbia during the Euro 2022 Qualifiers. I enjoyed watching them play well and end on a positive note, even though I’m a bit sad about the 4th place. It’s the hardest one. It was also nice watching some international handball during a time when there’s a health crisis."
His top players from the World Championships
"I liked the Denmark right-back [Mathias Gidsel]. Their goalkeeper Niklas Landin was very good, as was the Swedish one, Andreas Palicka, who hurt us in the semi-final. The Swedish centre Jim Gottfridsson was good, Mikkel Hansen also played very well. The Spanish right-back from PSG ,Ferrán Solé had a great World Champs, as did Rodrigo Corrales. A lot of players reached their level and that was enjoyable to see during the games."
The two best players in the world on the same team at PSG… It's a privilege
"It’s always a privilege to play with the best players in the world. For one, it’s easier but first and foremost, we learn from them. We can get inspired by their way of training, of playing. We look at one or two small details in the players around us, that’s how we improve.
"Off the pitch, he is one of a kind! He likes art and fashion… He has interests that are different from regular handball players. I get on very well with him, we are gonna miss him."