The old saying goes: “champions retire in their prime” and as such, the legendary goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik has decided to bid farewell to handball on his terms.
His goodbye personified everything he did in his playing days – it was quiet, determined, honest and genuine.
But, if we could choose a song to go along the illustrious career path of Arpad Sterbik, it would most certainly be Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. The quintessential goalkeeper was fond of doing everything his way, ever since the humble beginnings in the small town of Ada.
His path took him to become one of the greatest. With a list of achievements including EHF EURO 2018, World Championship 2013, VELUX EHF Champions League: 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2017, EHF Challenge Cup 2001, IHF World Player of the Year 2005, as well as countless domestic titles won in Hungary, Spain and North Macedonia speak only one part of his story.
You have upheld your decision to retire, even though the season was postponed. What prompted your decision?
Arpad Sterbik: My decision was made before the pandemic struck. Coronavirus only sped things up. The worst thing about it was uncertainty. We cannot be sure when it is going to end and it is the second part of the season. Our work should have begun in earnest by now. But, all we have been working for the entire season has now been put on hold.
It takes a lot of effort to get back into training. Especially at my age. I need at least a month or two of intense work, to even think about playing at the desired level. I am kind of like a diesel engine, I need time to get up and running.
Were there any second thoughts when deciding to retire?
Arpad Sterbik: I was thinking about staying for a while, to help Cupara and Corrales, in case we had only two goalkeepers. That way, I could reduce the workload, and help them remain fresh for key matches. However, we now have three quality options in goal, so I will help them out in training if needed.
My wife recently said to me: “But, you can still play”. I replied: “Of course I can, but I do not want to.” All my peers are now coaches or club officials. There are very few of us still playing. I felt the time has come to call it a day.
Any plans for retirement?
Arpad Sterbik: No immediate plans. But, I hope that now I will have more time for other things. Even without handball in my life, I have so many things to do. The day is too short.
I enjoy wine and have a small vineyard near Balaton. My father makes wine, and I had some land, so I decided to give it a go. It is a lot of work, but I am just starting. I hope I can make some quality wine in the future.
I also spoke with David Davis about helping out with the goalkeepers at Veszprém.
Will you try your hand in coaching?
Arpad Sterbik: No way. The coaching job is the most difficult. Constant stress, moving, travelling. It is not for me. I will try my hand coaching goalkeepers, but I do not see myself as a professional coach. It is good to stay in touch, but I have had enough handball. I am tired of constant travelling and moving.
Many former players have said the same thing after retiring, only to come back as coaches. However, in my case, I highly doubt it.
Can you bring anything new to goalkeeper coaching?
Arpad Sterbik: Each goalkeeper is special in his own way. There are many excellent schools and methods – Scandinavian, Spanish, Balkan. You can learn the technique and develop your style, but there are things only experience can teach you. That part of mental coaching, that is where I can help out. If there is talent and will to be worked with, I am always here to help.
We still remember your heroics at the EHF EURO 2018. It was quite a farewell.
Arpad Sterbik: I wanted to be there and help if I am needed. We made some plans, as I was not ready from the get-go and we already had two excellent goalkeepers.
I made it for the semi-finals, in time to help out for the penalties. What we did at that tournament and my role is not something you can count on, or plan it. It only happens once in a while. I am glad everything came together the way it did and I was able to be a part of it.
That Spanish team (EHF EURO 2018 winners) was really special.
Arpad Sterbik: You know, that the Spanish team is a very unique group of people. A different philosophy. It is the collective strength that prevails. I do not know how it is in other national teams, but we have that strong cohesion, respect and understanding. We believe in ourselves and keep that atmosphere, regardless of whether we are winning or losing.
The VELUX EHF FINAL4 2019 brings back memories. Do you feel any regrets, after coming so close?
Arpad Sterbik: 2019 was married to misfortune. Coach Davis did great things for us since arriving at Veszprém. He brought a lot of consistency to our game and made us find good form and our full potential. We showed everyone what we can do. However, injuries prevented us from going all the way. If we were complete, I feel we could have won it.
We are enjoying our handball with coach Davis and I feel they will make it someday as a team, but we must all follow our path.
Each FINAL4 is a story in itself. It is a separate mini-tournament, and very different from the rest of the season. Whoever is the most inspired, or feels best in that particular moment can win it. You can have a perfect season, only to wake up on the wrong side of the bed on the day and it was all for nothing. That is why it is so unique.
There is no magic formula to winning, but what makes a winning team?
Arpad Sterbik: Confidence and togetherness. When I look back at my title with Vardar in 2017, I remember there was a lot of confidence. We all believed in it. There was not a moment when any of us did not think we would win it. It was a marvellous experience and a great feeling to be part of that team. We were all as one and it felt like we were all on the same wavelength.
Looking back, what was the best moment of your career?
Arpad Sterbik: It is difficult to choose a single best moment, so I will have to go with the one that felt best.
When we first won the Champions League with Ciudad Real (in 2006) it was definitely a unique feeling. I have never felt that way before. To experience something you have only dreamed of, it is unforgettable.
Another one of those unforgettable moments was in 1999 World Championship with Yugoslavia. I was a 19-year-old debutant, when coach Zivkovic gave me a chance in front of 25,000 people against Germany in the quarter-finals. I am proud of that bronze medal for many reasons.
Looking back, I have had so much luck in my life. Through handball, I was able to meet so many good people and play with the best players. I can only say: thank you, handball.
More than 30 trophies, seven clubs, four EHF Champions League titles, four countries, two national teams, and one love – handball. Thank you, Arpad.