2003 EHF Champions League Finals (Portland San Antonio – Montpellier): Remembering a Classic

(19 Year old Nikola Karabatic with one of his 11 goals in the first leg of the 2003 Champions League Final… Notice anything strange about this goal?)

The Coronavirus Pandemic has been a real bummer for sports fans everywhere.  No more live sports.  To fill the gap ESPN and other sports networks have been airing classic matches.

Handball is no different and last week I sent out a Twitter post asking for recommendations of classic matches that were available online and “Sharp Action” replied with a link to the 2nd Leg of the 2003 Champions League Final between Portland San Antonio and Montpellier.  And, then later someone pointed me to a great Spanish site (blog youtube) with the 1st leg of this classic final. 

  • 1st Leg (Spanish):  Link
  • 2nd Leg (Spanish):  Link
  • 2nd Leg (French): Link

What a gift!  What a trip down memory lane!

It’s hard to believe it was 17 years ago.  It seems like yesterday that I was watching these matches in with my 1 year old daughter “surfing” the coffee table in our Paris apartment.  Now she’s getting ready to graduate from high school.  (I guess it’s TBD as to whether she walks across a stage or just gets her diploma in the mail.)

Handball wise, it’s been quite an education.  I remember that it took me awhile back in the 2002-03 season to figure out that club handball was on TV in France and what the Champions League was.  Not to mention what the hell a “two match aggregate playoff” was.  There was no Final Four at the time and therefore the semifinal and finals were decided by the aggregate score of two matches, with one being played in each locale.

I’ve only rewatched the first leg in Pamplona and I won’t give any spoilers, but here’s a few contextual tidbits that might help you appreciate the match more:

  • Arguably, these matches are a bit of a coming out party for France’s big 3:  Nikola Karabatic, Didier Dinart, and Thierry Omeyer.  Dinart is generally considered to be the best defender of all time.  Omeyer is in the conversation for best all time GK and, of course, Karabatic may well be the handball GOAT.  Certainly, few would argue against the reality that he has been the GOAT for the 21st century.
  • Karabatic had just turned 19 years old at the time these matches were played.  I will never forget a few months earlier watching Montpellier and checking his (at the time) relatively short Wikipedia page and absolutely being floored to discover that he was just 18 years old and thinking to myself, “Holy crap!  How good is the guy going to be in a few years?”
  • Laughably, Montpellier coach, Patrice Canayer didn’t start Karabatic for this match.  To Canayer’s credit, though, he doesn’t leave much after he does enter the game.
  • Take a look at this goal by Karabatic: Link  (Notice anything unusual?)
  • Watch what Karabatic does at the end of the first half and think about how that might impact the final outcome.
  • Check out how Didier Dinart clogs up the middle on defense.  There ought to be some handball analytics that measure what an impact that sort of play can be on the final outcome.  You just don’t see many goals scored while he’s in the vicinity of the action.  It’s hard to measure that, but if you watch just him (instead of the ball) for a few minutes you’ll start to appreciate what a difference he makes.
  • The Spanish club, Portland San Antonio was a major presence in the Spanish League and was actually located in Pamplona.  Yes, the club was located there even if the club name by coincidence featured the names of two NBA franchise cities, which are not cities in Spain.  Best that I can tell, San Antonio is a neighborhood in Pamplona while Portland was the name of the cement company that was their sponsor.  They were also a casualty of the Spanish financial crisis that caused the dramatic decline in the Liga Asobal.
  • Be sure to appreciate Jackson Richardson’s skills both on offense and defense, but keep in mind that he was also almost 34 years old and was actually entering the tail end of a great career.
  • Portland San Antonio’s leading scorer for the match was a Belarussian, Mikhail Yakimovich, who also won a gold medal in 1992 for the Soviet Union.  He was also 35 years old.  Back in the day, Liga Asobal teams seemed to have quite a few players from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union populating their rosters and this is one of the reasons the league was once considered the best in the world.
  • The GK for Portland San Antonio, Vladimir Rivero, was originally from Cuba and tragically died a year later due to an aneurysm.  He played 191 international matches for Cuba.
  • It’s kind of quaint to see all the lines on the floor for basketball, volleyball, etc, but that was pretty commonplace until the EHF instituted requirements for standardized floors. 

Links to more classic matches you can see online: Link