Less than 2 weeks ago, France was crowned as the new EHF EURO champions. The European championship was not only historic for France – it was also special for Katarina Krpez Slezak. The Serbian right wing was crowned as the top scorer of the competition with 50 goals in 6 matches – we don’t need an expert mathematic knowledge to see that this means more than 8 goals in a match. Nowadays, she is the top scorer wherever she is playing. In 4 years, she was the top scorer of the Hungarian league, she has the most goals in the current season as well, and at the moment, she is the player with the most goals in the history of her Hungarian club ÉRD Handball. Being the crowd’s favorite in the Hungarian city, one of the best players on her position these days, performing on a very high level in the past seasons – still remaining in the shadows in the world of handball. Krpi, as everybody calls her, a very modest, humble and nice girl, doesn’t ask for spotlight, doesn’t put herself on the front side of newspapers – she just does what she does best: plays handball, scores goals – and slowly gets the recognition she deserves. In this portrait, TimeOut Magazine attempts to bring her closer to handball-loving people. The captain of the Serbian national team talks about beginnings, family, handball in Serbia, the recent EHF EURO, goals and dreams and much more – don’t miss it!
The memories of the EHF EURO 2018 are still fresh in her mind as she reflects on the performance of the Serbian national team in France. Katarina Krpez Slezak believes they would have deserved a better place than 11th, still she tries to see the positive side.
„I think we have a quite good tournament behind us, that is why I feel our 11th place isn’t that realistic. If someone looks at the final placements of the tournament, seeing our 11th place he might think Serbia is not a good team, but this wouldn’t be true. The EURO is a very tough competition with many strong teams, so it is hard to tell even by a match who would win. Besides having a good team and good players, being lucky is also important. We had some good matches, some bad matches, but looking back on the tournament, I am happy and satisfied with the way we played, and with the way we fought match by match. We knew before the group stage that our most important match would be the one against Sweden, and it was really hard to lose by just one goal. This defeat caused us a lot of problems later. After that, we had a 3 days break (the match between Serbia and Russia was postponed from Saturday to Sunday due to political reasons) and it doesn’t always help the teams to have such a long break in a tight schedule like an EURO. On Friday before the match against Russia, we felt strong and prepared for the next day, we were full of energy, then our match was rescheduled and we had to play on Sunday instead of Saturday, and then we were really slow and made too many mistakes against Russia. I believe if we had the match in the original time, we would have performed a lot better because we had really good energies. Obviously I can’t say that we would have won because against a great team like Russia, it is never easy, but I am sure we would have seemed a lot better than on Sunday. Then on the next day, on Monday, we had to play a decisive match against Montenegro and we lost by one goal, the match was decided only in the last minutes. So this is why I say if you want to go far in an EURO, you also need to have luck. For me, the most important is that we fought in every match, and we still have the chance to play at the Olympic Games.”
At the final stages of the EHF EURO, there were some unlucky injuries that made top coaches like Ambros Martín or Kim Rasmussen raise their voices, asking for changes in the tight schedule of players to avoid forcing players to their physical and mental limits. Krpez Slezak believes some minor changes would not only be good for the health of the players but also for the spectators as more rested players would play better matches with higher level of handball.
In my opinion, some little changes would be good in the schedule. The handball season is very long, the longest compared to all the other sports. In the Hungarian league, which is one of the strongest leagues in the world, you always have to give 200% in the matches, no matter who you play against, and if we still play in an international cup, players don’t really have time to rest after a long season, they don’t have time to change their mind and body before the national team matches. After our club matches, we just go home to change the clothes and we go straight to the national team, and this is bad for the players because we don’t really have time to relax, but it is also uncomfortable for the coaches. They don’t have the necessary time to prepare their teams for the upcoming matches, they just have a few days to adjust everything and get ready to bring the best form during the competition. The matches are very tough, the competititon is big and unpredictable. I think a little change would also have a good effect on the level of the game because less tired players would play on a higher level. A little less tight schedule would be the interest of everyone.
Even though Serbia didn’t qualify for the placement matches on the final weekend, Krpez Slezak was on the top scorer position from the first days of the tournament until the end. It is even more valuable if we add that she played two matches less than Romania’s Eliza Buceschi on the second place.
„I am really happy and proud to be the top scorer of the EHF EURO 2018. It gives me the motivation to work hard and to be a better version of myself day by day. However, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without the help of my team, so I am very thankful to my teammates.”
Although the Serbian captain has been performing well in the past seasons and showed a world class performance in the EHF EURO this year, she has never been as appreciated on her positions as for example Carmen Martín or Jovanka Radicevic who are considered to be the best right wings of the last few years. However, for Krpez Slezak, these things are less important. She avoids the spotlight, she just wants to remain the simple girl she has always been.
„Not playing Champions League can be the main reason to be less appreciated in the world of handball because it is the biggest stage. I only played in CL for 2 years, then I came to Hungary and only played in EHF Cup, and many people only watch Champions League when it comes to club handball. I am not the kind of person that likes to share everything about my life on social media. I don’t like to show myself to the world. If I play good and people like me, they will try to watch my games, they will try to follow my work and find the way to watch my matches because Hungarian league and EHF Cup are streamed most of the time. I don’t need to put myself online and force people to watch me. I like if people follow me for the way I play and not for the things I share on social media.”
However, her good performances in the past years, her personality and experience in the world of handball have made her the captain of the Serbian national team.
„For me, being the captain of the national team doesn’t mean extra pressure. I am not the kind of player that likes to think about hierarchy in a team, I don’t make others feel that I am the captain. Obviously, in a team there are some unwritten rules, like for example young players carry the balls before and after trainings and matches, but it is normal in every team. I think my teammates also accepted me as the captain and like the way I behave with them. I believe that players are equal in the team, everyone has the right to say the opinion or the advice. If we have to choose something, we agree together every time, everybody is included, this helps our team spirit. My team is satisfied with me and this makes me happy as well.”
Hosting two big international competitions (EHF EURO 2012 and world championship in 2013) and winning the silver medal in 2013 were the top of Serbian handball in the past years. The world championship final broke every record in the number of spectators: more than 20.000 people watched the final in the Kombank Arena in Belgrade. Katarina Krpez Slezak was also part of the Serbian team at that time, but she says that the interest in handball has decreased a lot in the past years.
„In Serbia, people don’t really care about handball. There is less money in Serbian handball, and the Serbian championship is weak, so people like to watch successful sports like tennis or volleyball. But of course when the national team plays, they follow the matches, especially the big tournaments. If it is about the national team, it doesn’t matter which sport it is, people always follow the matches and send us messages of support.
I like to live and play in Hungary because the way people love sports and especially handball is amazing. When I played in Serbia back then, there was more money and the league was stronger. But in Hungary, everything is different. The Hungarian handball has always been special and famous, Hungary always had a name. When I came to Hungary, I saw that not only the environment around handball is much more professional than in Serbia. Teams usually have a strong base from the youngest ages and even the young players have full equipment, team clothes, shirts, jerseys, balls and everything. You don’t see this in Serbia. There, teams usually have one adult team, and maybe one more in the younger category. In Serbia, the financial support of the government is smaller, and the living standards are also lower, life is not easy. Serbia is not a rich country, and even though we have a lot of talented people, they have to make a living so because of financial reasons, they don’t choose sports as a profession.”
Usually, there is a kind of attitude that people like to call „Balkan mentality”. The roots of this special mentality are in the soul of the nation and in the belief that only work can take you far, according to Krpez Slezak.
„Even though Serbia is a good place, life is not easy there, but the people in our country have souls. And they know if they want to achieve something, they have to work hard and fight until the end. We know that talent without work is nothing, and this defines our character. If you want to reach the top, you have to work really hard and you mustn’t give up on your goals. This is how we are made, this is why our athletes always fight and have a different mentality.”
But how did a simple girl from the little Serbian-Hungarian town Sombor reach the biggest stages of the handball world? Katarina Krpez was born in Sombor, on 2 May 1988, as the third and youngest child of the Krpez family.
„Of course, my main support comes from my family: my husband, my mother, my father, my sister and my brother. My father was a boxer, but my mother had no relation to sports. She doesn’t even watch any kind of sport, only if I am playing. My brother likes sports and is very sporty, he likes to watch me play and supports me a lot in everything I do. My sister is rather like my mother, but she follows my career closely and sometimes, she acts like a „manager” for me, she collects and shares everything about me and she wants me to win in everything, may it be a competition or just a public voting. I am very close with my family, they have always been by my side throughout my bad and good moments, and I am very thankful for that. Nowadays, I can’t see them too much, but if I have a chance and some free days, I go home to visit them and to spend some time with them.”
Having an athlete as her father, the little Katarina was an active and sporty kid that tried different sports before falling in love with handball. Before handball, her favorite was volleyball, but she had to give up playing – many years have passed since then, and despite the hard beginning, Katarina Krpez Slezak became the „Krpi” of the handball world.
„My father was a boxer, so my brother and I spent a lot of time in the hall with him. We were very active kids, I liked to run and to do sports. As a kid, I played volleyball, I liked to play and I was talented in it. However, it was an expensive sport and my family wasn’t rich, so because of that, I had to stop playing volleyball. Then I got in touch with handball, my father took me to a training, and I was ok with it, but I didn’t like it that much, I still preferred playing volleyball. Thanks to the fact that I was left-handed, they welcomed me in the team, but I stopped playing handball twice because I didn’t really feel the passion for this sport. Then at my third try with handball, I met Kristina Liscevic (former playmaker of the Serbian national team, also from Sombor) in the local team, we became friends and then I enjoyed handball more, and since then, I never thought about stopping to play handball. I started very late, I was 14 at that time, but things went really fast. I was playing in Sombor for 3 years, then I went to play in Bor and even though it was very far from my home and I was young, I had the chance to play in the first league. When I was younger, I played in right back position. I wasn’t tall and couldn’t be a sharpshooter, but I was doing well on that position, I was playing in right wing only if the team was in need. Later in 2007, I became a wing player, but it was very hard to change positions – at first, my balls were meters away from the goal. After trainings, I practiced long hours to improve my shots from the wing and just one year later, I was invited to play in the national team. This made me proud and gave me a lot of motivation to continue practicing and working hard.”
After playing in the Serbian league, Krpez Slezak played in Macedonia and in Slovenia. Even though she moved abroad, she was familiar with the languages spoken in these countries. Then in 2014, after financial problems in Ljubljana, she was contracted by Hungarian club ÉRD.
„Before coming to Hungary, I only played in teams from the Balkan region. After leaving my homeland, I played in Macedonia and Slovenia. Even though these countries speak a different language than Serbian, in this region, languages are similar, I could get along very well without too much effort. Then when I moved to Hungary in 2014, it was very different. In my hometown Sombor, you can hear Hungarian words for example if you go to the market or you walk around the streets, so I thought I might have a little advantage as I knew basic words and expressions. Then I arrived to Hungary and I was proven wrong: I couldn’t understand a single word from what was said to me, people speak really differently here. The Hungarian language is very difficult, but fortunately, I got a lot of help from my teammates, they helped me in the translations and it made my life easier in the beginning. The main difficulty is that this language can’t be compared to any other language in the world, so you have to learn everything. Nowadays, I understand almost everything but it is really difficult to speak, I will never be able to speak as good as a Hungarian. In my everydays, I can talk to people in Hungarian, I can chat with fans or anyone, but I still feel more comfortable with English. In addition, I am a shy person and I don’t like to make mistakes in front of many eyes, so when I give interview in front of the camera, I prefer to speak English.”
Krpez Slezak turned 30 in 2018, has been married for years, no wonder the „baby project” is often mentioned by fans.
„A few weeks ago, before the international break, I signed three more years with Érd, and I don’t know what the future brings. As a married woman, obviously, I have plans of building a family with my husband and to have kids, but before that, we still have goals and we have to work on many things before our baby can arrive. After giving birth to our baby, I still want to return to the handball court like many other players did, and I really don’t have plans when I want to finish playing handball. As long as my body is fit, as long as I can help my team, I want to play. However, I don’t want to see myself slow and if I will just be the shadow of who I used to be, I will stop. I want people to remember me as I was, and not as a player that used to be good one day.”
But how long is she intending to stay in handball and what are her plans after retirement?
„I have a lot of plans for the time after my handball career, but these plans depend on a lot of things. Maybe we stay in Hungary, maybe we move back to our house in Serbia. I still don’t know how long I will play handball, that’s why I don’t want to look so far ahead, I like to take things step by step. Right now, my focus is on playing handball, the priority is to bring the most out of it while I can. But obviously sometimes I make thoughts about my life after handball. I have many ideas, many goals, many plans. Maybe I will stay in the handball world, maybe I could work with kids here or in Serbia, but until then, I still have so much to do and so many things can change that there is nothing fixed or decided about my future after handball.”
Katarina Krpez Slezak is performing well and consistently in the Hungarian league: so far, she scored 78 goals in 9 matches this season. Performing well on the highest level requires a lot of sacrifice, but what does she think she is like when she is off the court?
„I am not the most interesting and funniest person I have to admit, I am just a normal girl. When I am in Hungary, my time is mostly defined by the time of matches and trainings. In these hard periods, I don’t like to go out, I prefer relaxing and resting between my trainings to be as fit as possible. If I have a little time, I like to go to Budapest, if I have guests, I always take them to the Hungarian capital because I really like the city. Between and after trainings, I like to watch movies and series, I also like to read, right now, Sidney Sheldon is my big favorite. In my free time, on free weekends and free days, I prefer going home to Serbia to visit my family and my friends, but unfortunately, my time is always limited. At those times, I leave movies, series and books behind, I’m trying to spend some quality time with the people that are close to me. With my friends, we like to play games and have fun, or go out for a coffee to have a little talk. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time for every person that is important for me.”
As a professional athlete, Krpez Slezak has to take care about healthy eating to be as fit as possible. She can cook if she needs – but in Hungary, she is not forced to be a masterchef.
„For me, eating is not the main thing. Obviously, it is important for a professional athlete to eat normally, but I don’t eat that much. My big favorite is pizza, but the most important is to stay fit, so my main food is chicken. Anything combined with chicken is a perfect match for me. I usually eat chicken with pasta, but I don’t like salty food combined with sweet, for example meat with fruits. I can cook some delicious dishes, but here in Hungary I don’t have to cook: we usually go out to a restaurant, and my friend and teammate Jelena Lavko also likes to cook. If my husband is here in Hungary, he is the one cooking, so I don’t have to.”
After Christmas, the Hungarian league will be back on 29 December 2018 so there is no stopping for Krpez Slezak even in this holiday period. Her team ÉRD had a shaky start of the season – some great wins, some unexpected defeats, a true roller coaster ride. Having a difficult season, Krpez Slezak expects her team to fight until the end and she has still not given up the bronze medal dream.
„For me personally, the most important goal is to stay healthy. I want to help my team as much as I can, and I will work hard and train as much as I can to do so. And obviously, fight until the end against anybody and anything. We didn’t start the season too well: we have been struggling a lot with injuries, so we are having a tough season – we are still trying to find our game. I think we still have chances for the third place – there are many small things that can decide the final placements, so we haven’t given up on the medal. Unfortunately, we are out of the EHF Cup for this season, but our main goal is to fight every match and win as much as possible. After such a hard autumn season, we want to bring the most out of the spring and if we fight until the end and never give up, I will be satisfied.”
Having spent 16 years in the handball world, being one of the best players in her position, playing in one of the best handball leagues of the world, Katarina Krpez Slezak believes that having goals and dreams is essential – if you believe in yourself, you can make all of your dreams come true. That is what she did throughout her career, this is the mentality that made her who she is now – a simple, modest girl from a small Serbian town who slowly took her place on the biggest stage of handball, becoming probably the most silent and humble world class in the world of handball.
„Champions League is the biggest stage of club handball, but here in Hungary, it is difficult to reach a CL place because the competition is big and the opponents are strong. If I can’t play Champions League, I want to win the EHF Cup. Unfortunately, this season we won’t have the chance because we lost early. If luck will stand on our side, I believe we can win the cup. With the national team, it would be nice to win one more medal on the international stage, and I also believe we can. But the most important is to have goals, dreams. You have to dream, hope, keep the faith, and believe in yourself, then you can turn your dreams into reality.“