The legend, now in bookstores

Svetlana Kitic in action, and the cover of her biography

Svetlana Kitic in
action, and the cover of her biography

By Altay Atli

Handball biographies are a rare commodity, probably because publishers do not see any profits in this genre, or also because retired world-class handball players do not bother to put into writing their experiences and reflections on the sports. A recent exception provides a gem of story of a life devoted to handball.

The biography of Svetlana Kitic, a former Yugoslav handball player who is officially designated by the International Handball Federation as the “world’s best female handball player of all times”, is a must read for all handball enthusiasts. Titled “Ceca” after Kitic’s nickname, the biography written by Svetlana Vujcic, journalist and former teammate of Kitic, tells us the story of a woman who rose to the top against all odds, gave her all for the sports she loved and played at the competitive level for more than three decades. “There were good and bad days, tears, broken fingers, noses, jaws, but I would go through all that again”, says Kitic, “Handball is simply my life, the thing which fulfills me the most and makes me happy. If I wasn’t like that I wouldn’t have played it until I was 49. Yes, if I was born again, I would live my life exactly the same.”

The biography tells us actually two stories that are interwoven throughout. First there is the story of Kitic the legend, a handball player par excellence, who won a total of 21 club titles; silver and gold medal in the Olympic Games, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 respectively; gold, silver and bronze medals in world championships; and played a total of 202 games for the Yugoslav national team scoring more than 900 goals. Throughout the book, we trace her path, from the very early days in the Bosnian town of Tuzla when she “irresistibly resembled Pippi Longstocking”, to her beloved club Radnicki in Belgrade and on to clubs in Germany, Italy (where she was known as “Maradona in skirt”) and Spain before moving back home. We watch her developing a style, with her feints that break down the defense, her blind passes and bullet-like shots from the knee level sharply to the upper corners of the goal. We watch her perfecting her games, winning games and hearts, sometimes also making “the dumbest mistake, ruin the game, miss a goal many times” but “never tolerating surrender and lack of competitiveness.” Her exploits with the Yugoslav national team provide us with an in-depth overview of not only a successful athlete’s career, but of the history of European handball itself.

Then there is the other story: Kitic the human. What is a perfectly functioning and merciless goal-scoring machine on the handball court has a human face on the outside, with all her desires, fears, frustrations and, well, love affairs. Kitic got married four times and we see in the book that her relationship with her partners have frequently gone through turbulent times. Adding to this, the problems she had with clubs and the federation, with individuals in the handball world, financial troubles and externally induced situations such as the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, we see Kitic trying to stand on her feet, never giving up, and surviving to score another round of goals in the next match. Whenever she needs solace she finds it in two places: her children and handball: “Handball didn’t take anything from me, fooled or deceived me, like people are capable of doing. It gave me everything in the world, and by making magic, it made… me.”

Kitic’s is a life of ambition, struggle and endurance. It is a life of handball. As Serbian coach Milorad Milatovic wrote, hers is a “story about the greatest female handball player of all times, the mother of three, wife and grandmother, the story about a great woman.”

A personal note: Zhongshan, southeast China, the year is 1999. The World Junior Women’s Handball Championship is in progress. Turkey and Yugoslavia are in the same group. Svetlana Kitic is the manager of the Yugoslav team, and the author of this article has the same job with the Turkish team… A talk I had with her, over a cup of rice wine, has been an amazing lesson for me on handball and life. It has been a real privilege, but for those who haven’t had it, the book, which is available in both English and Serbian, is recommended.

And a question to readers: Handball biographies, though they do not exist in large numbers, are/can be a source of both knowledge and inspiration for handball lovers, especially for young players. So, dear reader, whose biography would you like to read the most?