Arpad Sterbik is back – as the lifeline for the Spaniards

FEATURE: As goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas is out for the semi-final against France, the former world champion and four-time EHF Champions League winner, who retired from the national team last season, is their new hope

Former world champion, EHF EURO medallist and four-time EHF Champions League winner Arpad Sterbik returns for Spain as an emergency replacement for injured Gonzalo Perez de Vargas.

“This would be a crazy story, only sports can write – a story of disappointment and pain on one hand, and a story of surprise on the other. You arrive at a European championship for two matches in three days and might win a trophy or a medal.” When Viran Morros, Spain’s defence chief, talked about the final weekend of the EHF EURO 2018 at the team media call on Thursday, the day before their semi-final against France, he could not predict what would happen in terms of goalkeepers. But some hours later it was confirmed: Sterbik will be back between the posts.

On Wednesday, Gonzalo Perez de Vargas suffered a knee injury during the crucial 31:27 victory against Germany, which propelled the Spaniards to the semi-finals. When the FC Barcelona goalkeeper had to leave the court, his Paris Saint-Germain counterpart Rodrigo Corrales jumped in – on what was his 27th birthday.

A triple dose of world class between the posts

Spain’s coaching staff had a tough question ahead: What will happen with Perez de Vargas?

They decided not to take any risks after the knee ligament injury, and Perez de Vargas received intense medical treatment on Thursday. Spain then called for a legend, and Arpad Sterbik arrived in Zagreb on Thursday afternoon after a short trip from Skopje, where the 38-year-old plays for Vardar. Finally, the Spanish Federation announced the replacement on Friday morning.

After the 2016/17 season, which crowned Sterbik with his fourth EHF Champions League title, Sterbik resigned from the national team. The 2013 world champion and EHF EURO 2016 silver medallist had his last international matches in the EHF EURO 2018 qualification in May 2017 against Austria, when Perez de Vargas was injured.

“I know Arpad very well, and I am happy to play with two of the world’s best goalkeepers,” says Corrales. “We want to return home with a medal, therefore you need two strong goalkeepers. As Gonzalo will not be able to play, Arpad will jump in, no problem.”

Spain’s defence stars share this opinion: “I was world champion with Arpad, he is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. [I am] glad to have even triple world class between the posts,” says Morros. “If Gonzalo cannot play, there will not be that big adaption. On one hand, we know Arpad and he knows us, and we have a system, in which all of us fit well. And we are a team, no matter which players are on or off the court.”

“50 per cent of the team’s success belongs to the goalkeeper”

Serbian-born Sterbik, who was awarded IHF World Handball Player of the Year in 2005, took Spanish citizenship in 2008 after he won two bronze medals at World Championships (1999, 2001) with Serbia and Montenegro.

Sterbik started his international career at Veszprém, before making it to Spain in 2004, where he won the Champions League trophy three times (2006, 2008, 2009) with Ciudad Real. In 2012, he transferred to FC Barcelona, then two years later to Vardar – and Gonzalo Perez de Vargas became his successor with the Champions League record winners.

At the end of the current season, Sterbik will return to where it all started, as he signed another contract with Veszprém. When Vardar became Champions League winners in 2017, Sterbik was awarded MVP of the VELUX EHF FINAL4.

“In the end, our medical department had to decide. But we are prepared,” says Spain coach Jordi Ribera, as defence ace Gedeon Guardiola adds: “There is nearly no goalkeeper stronger in one-against-one actions than Arpad. We know that Arpad can help us.”

“In crucial matches like an EHF EURO semi-final, 50 per cent of the team’s success belongs to the goalkeeper – and no matter if Rodrigo, Gonzalo or Arpad are between the posts, we are strong on this position,” concludes line player Julen Aguinagalde.

written by Björn Pazen / cg