Spirit of 2004 pushing Igor Karacic to feel Olympic spirit once more

15 Mar. 2024

Spirit of 2004 pushing Igor Karacic to feel Olympic spirit once more

A smile is never that far from Igor Karacic’s face. 

The Croatian centre back is speaking to ihf.info after a rest day training session at the ZAG Arena in Hanover, Germany – host of the Olympic Qualification Tournament #2.

Joking with his teammates and smiling all the way to the team bus in the car park outside, the talk covers a number of topics, including life after handball.

But right now, in March 2024, his life is handball.

He and his Croatia side, with newly-installed head coach Dagur Sigurdsson, have played once and won once here in Lower Saxony – a 35:29 victory over Austria.

The start was slow against the Austrians, but handball is a 60-minute game and for their time in Germany, results are all that matter. Wins equal Paris 2024 Olympic Games qualification and that is what they have done so far.

“Yesterday, I read an interview with our coach and he said ‘I don't need stuff for YouTube’ or something like that, he said: ‘it's most important to take these four, six points and to qualify to the Olympic Games’ – the most important thing is just winning these games and that's it,” said the 35-year-old, his solitary strike against the Austrians putting him up to 298 goals for his country, across 118 games.

And that is it.

Karacic wants one more taste of an Olympic Games with Croatia and the last opportunity will likely be Paris 2024 with Los Angeles 2028 coming just before his 40th birthday.

“I'm almost 36 and maybe it's the last Olympic Games tournament for me,” he said. “I will give everything tomorrow to try to beat Germany and to qualify through because I want to – maybe in the next two or three years – finish my career in a good way with a lot of tournaments, and the first of them is the Olympic Games. It's the most important thing now in my life.”

The Germans also won their opener, 41:29 against Algeria, with the hosts set to put up a strong challenge to Karacic and Croatia in gaining their second win, a victory which would represent almost the final step towards Paris 2024.

And the Games this summer are part of a feeling Karacic has had as long as he can remember – representing his country at the greatest competition of them all. 

That feeling was firmly embedded in his psyche – and that of the wider Croatian public – when their legendary national teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s were regulars on global podiums, where they collected two Olympic golds (1996, 2004) and an IHF World Championship gold (2003).

“The mentality of the Balkan people and the Croatia people is a high level if you speak just about handball and about the sport,” said the Kielce player, who represented Croatia at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games where his side finished fifth.

“The 2003 World Championship and 2004 Olympic Games gold medals were positive for us because in my generation, when I was in the youth team, idols for me were (Ivano) Balic, (Petar) Metlicic and (Blazenko) Lackovic – they showed me the way.

“I always believed and looked at a player like Ivano (Balic), or my brother (Ivan). I liked them a lot, their personalities,” he added. “It was good for me to have these people around me, to play with them, to train with them and to improve my game and my life in the end.

“I aways dream always about this, about the Croatian handball team, about these big tournaments. Now I enjoy them [myself as a player), maybe I'm on high level now. I just want to go with my team to try to give to our people, our spectators, something to celebrate.

“I just want to continue to be there in the Olympic Games and try to win some medals. It’s my dream and the dream of all of our guys here and it's really nice to be this part of this journey with the Croatian national team for the Olympic Games. My feeling now is maybe stronger than before.”

Looking to guide them not only to Paris 2024 but to the podium in France is Dagur Sigurdsson, the first non-Croatian head coach of the men’s team.

The Icelandic coach only had five sessions with the team, and just one of them with the full squad, before taking on Austria and Karacic is realistic about the immediate impact, but looking forward to what is to come down the road.

“It's difficult to say now,” said the player about if any aspect of training has already changed under the former Japan head coach. “He wants to improve our game but we didn't have a lot of time, maybe four or five days and it's not enough, for our coaches and for us [to change anything], but the most important thing is just to win these games and to qualify to the Olympic Games.

“If we qualify, we will have a lot of time to prepare, maybe 40, 50 days, and this is going to be a really good thing for us and for Croatia Handball with Dagur Sigurdsson.”

Karacic, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and started his club career with HMRK Zrinjski Mostar, took time to reflect on his career in the sport and what is to come before boarding the bus back to the team hotel.

“I started handball with my brother when I was around seven and everything what I have in my life, it's because of handball,” said Karacic.

“I respect this sport; I respect handball and I really enjoy it. It’s not just a business, it's not just a sport, it's not just I'm an athlete or a professional player – handball is my life and maybe in the next few years it’s going to be the same.

“But when I finish my career, we'll see, maybe I will take some other jobs? Maybe I will just stop a little bit and I will see some other direction in my life maybe? But for now, the really big importance in my life is handball.”