A decade of living the dream
April 13, 2017
For years, South American players had to get used to the idea that the only way to improve in handball was to leave the country. It’s a tough choice. Leaving family, friends and one’s own country behind is not something that’s taken lightly. And while it’s the same issue for many European players as well, the difference is a fourteen-hour flight instead of two in order to get back home.
By Laura Agena
Ten years have passed since goalkeeper Bárbara Arenhart decided to leave her hometown of Novo Hamburgo, in Rio Grande do Sul, in the south of Brazil, to chase her dream of becoming a professional athlete.
Stregspiller.com talked with her to find out about her memories of the first years abroad, her time in Hungary, the national team, and her plans for life after handball.
Why did you choose Ipress Center-Vác? What where the factors that influenced your decision?
BA: The first factor was the coach – András Németh – he got in touch with me in March of last year and at the time some things happened in the team where I was playing in Denmark (Nykøbing Falster HK ed.) that determined that I wouldn’t stay there. He told me about the project in Vác, about the team they were assembling and goals for the following season – I thought it was very interesting. And to be honest, I was not very satisfied with how things were going for me in Denmark, in handball. So, I was very happy to find out about this possibility because I was also eager to work with András again (Németh was Arenhart’s coach during her time in Hypo Niederösterreich ed.). I think that the Hungarian league is currently one of the best in the World, lots of foreign players have decided to come here. Next year it’ll be even tougher; I think that’s one of the things that influenced me in my decision as well.
You came from the very competitive Danish “Primo Tours Ligaen” – what attracted you to the Hungarian league where the only two champions since 2005 are Gyori ETO KC and Ferencvárosi TC?
BA: Well, despite the fact that there have been only two champions in so many years, it is a very competitive league. All matches are tough – we even struggle with the teams at the bottom of the standings. I’m very happy here, it is an extremely strong league technically, tactically and physically, even if we’re not playing any European competitions at the moment. As mentioned before – Gyori and FTC are the teams that have won everything in the past years, but the league is still very strong. All of the teams that rank behind them have very small point differences between them. I also think one of the cool things here is that there are five available spots for European competitions. I’m really happy with this league and I think it’ll be even better next year.
What are the goals for this season?
BA: When I first came here the goal was to finish among the best six teams, but now we’ve seen that we can hang with the first four (clubs ed.) , so this is the new objective for us. We’re currently 5th in the league table, so we’re close to achieving our goal, however, there are 7 games left and due to the level of the competition, anything can happen. We’ve done a good job so far and I think we can accomplish our goal and play in a European tournament next season.
After Fabiana ‘Dara’ Diniz’s retirement, you became the new captain of the Brazilian national team, how did you receive the news?
BA: I was very happy for having been chosen as the new captain of the national team, and I acknowledge the responsibilities that come along. ‘Dara’ has always complied with this role and I only hope I can represent the team in the same way from now on, with the same love and respect.
What was your reaction after Morten Soubak’s departure and what is his legacy he left to this group?
BA: I was really sad with him leaving. I think that we were all touched by the departures of each and every person who left the national team after the last Olympic cycle. We worked together for a very long period of time and we’ve gone through many special moments, and shared a lot about our private lives as well. In my opinion, Morten’s legacy is the fact that he installed a belief that with hard work and faith in what you’re doing, you can conquer anything. He brought a winning mentality to the group – something that we have never seen before and I think that’s what made us believe that it was possible to reach the top.
Bárbara refers to all the achievements that the Brazilian squad reached in the past few years. It includes winning the last three Pan American championships, two Pan American Games golds, finishing 6th and 5th in the last two Olympic Games, reaching the quarter finals in the 2011 World Championship on home soil and becoming World Champions in Serbia 2013. All of this wouldn’t have been possible if most of the girls who were part of these teams had decided to stay in Brazil instead of taking their chances to improve abroad. The 30-year old goalkeeper is one of the many Brazilians that have made a career in handball, spanning an entire decade abroad, with six teams in six different countries. The results show that this was the right decision.
This year you’re completing a decade of playing in Europe, what do you remember from the moment when you left Brazil? What were your feelings?
BA: Wow! Time went by so fast. But I still clearly remember the day when I signed my first contract to play in Europe. Everything was new, everything was so big before my eyes. When I arrived in Spain, I felt like I was really living a dream. The independence of making a living off the sport that I have always loved. It was the realization of a dream that came true way faster than I ever thought. I remember that when I first arrived in Spain my feelings where of freedom and commitment. I really wanted everything to go in the right way, I wanted my professional life to really become a reality here in Europe and I wanted to be at my best.
Both, Chana Masson and Eduarda Amorim, talked about how hard it was for them to play in Europe at the very beginning, mainly because of the preconceptions they faced for being Brazilian players, did you also encounter such barriers along the way?
BA: The truth is that these preconceptions still exist in some countries, or in some clubs, to be more precise. Personally, I didn’t face such prejudice in my first club in Spain, it was quite the opposite, I was very much welcomed. It took me a few months to adapt to the new style of play and rhythm, and my coach wanted to send me back to Brazil (laughs), but it was not due to the fact that I was Brazilian. It was because I really struggled to adapt to this new style of handball. However, I did face these preconceptions at some point in my career – not too long ago- and it was tough; but we’re part of a sport that caters to the male chauvinist instincts at times. So, we’re used to carrying the responsibility of proving ourselves before everyone else, and that’s why I have to say that I’m really proud of us Brazilians, for being so determined and fighting for our place wherever we go.
If you could give a piece of advice to “your younger self” that has just arrived in Spain, what would that be?
BA: Be patient! That would be my advice. Even now, when I change clubs or when I face a situation that is not going the way I want to, I think of that. This is also a piece of advice that I would give to any young athlete who is leaving Brazil.
You’ve lived in countries with very different cultures, which was the one that you struggled with the most in both your daily life and in sport?
BA: I think that in every country where I lived, I faced some sort of difficulty in the beginning. It always takes from 2 to 5 months to adapt to the way of life, the style of play, the language, the way things work in both the club and personal life. For example in Norway, I really struggled to get used to the weather, the loneliness and the language. While in Denmark, I had difficulties to adapt to the way the coach worked with our defense. In Romania it was the club’s administration, and so on. But I can guarantee that you get past these bumps in the road and you learn to deal with all of this. And when you look back, you find out that every place has taught you some value that you will take with you for the rest of your life.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you arrived in Europe?
BA: I was so happy of living the dream of playing abroad that I took every challenge that I faced as a goal to be conquered. As mentioned, my first challenge when I landed in Spain was to adapt to the style of handball and to earn my place in the team.
Are there any decisions that you regret today?
BA: No! I don’t regret any decision. I have a firm conviction that everything that I experienced has taught me something and I’m very grateful for any difficulties that crossed my way, as well as countless good things that I experienced so far.
In the book “Raça, Brasil: os bastidores da conquista inédita do mundial de handebol” (“The backstage of the unprecedented handball world championship title) written by Brazilian journalist Monique Danello after the astounding gold medal win at the World Cup in Serbia 2013, Danello explains how heartbreaking it was for Arenhart to find out she’d been cut from the roster for the 2012 London Olympics. It was unexpected news for the goalkeeper, who had taken part in the qualifying tournament (Pan American Games in Guadalajara 2011) and the World Championship in Brazil, in December of the same year. Nevertheless, she continued to work hard and earned her place back in the team, in the competitions that followed. The dream of taking part in the Olympic Games would have to wait, but it became a reality eventually, on home soil in 2016.
When you first started this journey, were you already thinking about becoming a professional in this sport? At what point did you realize that you wanted to make a career in handball?
BA: The truth is that handball became a part of my life in a very natural way, at a time when I was still playing at home. But when I realized that it was possible to become a professional and make a living of it, I knew in my heart that’s what I wanted in my life.
What dreams already turned into reality and which are still part of your bucket list?
BA: Some of my dreams already came true. The biggest one was to participate in the Olympic Games and to get a medal in a World Championship. An Olympic medal in Rio 2016 was a collective dream for us as a team, but I personally feel fulfilled having played the Olympic Games at home. At club level, I’ve already collected many titles, both with the respective teams as well as personal accomplishments, but I would really like to play in the Final4 of the Champions League, and – who knows – maybe even get a medal there.
How was it for you representing your country in the Olympic Games at home?
BA: It was a dream. I believe that it’s every athlete’s dream to represent their country in the Olympic Games, and I was able to experience it at home. The result may not have been the one we had planned for, but it still is the best result ever accomplished by a Brazilian team. It was amazing, surreal at times, standing on the court and listen to the national anthem, sung by a packed stadium. It was, without a doubt, one of the happiest handball moments in my life.
When you look at the structure of Brazilian handball, which has a semi-professional league and is facing financial problems, it seems like the results obtained by both the women’s and men’s national teams can only be explained as ‘miraculous’, do you agree with this assessment?
BA: I don’t think we can call them a “miracle”. I firmly believe that it’s the athlete’s efforts that make these results possible. Nowadays, most of the athletes that are part of the respective national teams, both female and male, are playing in Europe, and in my opinion that’s the reason for our improvement over the last couple of years. We’re playing in the best leagues in the world, constantly competing against the best players, training hard and working a whole lot to raise the level of the sport in our country as well. Unfortunately it’s a very different story in Brazil, but despite facing a very sad handball reality at home, in general, all of us who are playing abroad are always trying to give their best to represent our country.
Eduarda Amorim stated last year that the Rio Olympic Games were a last chance for Brazil to win a medal in a big competition. She based that statement on the reality that some of the more experienced players would retire and also the fact that younger players are not yet prepared to successfully fill the gap. Do you subscribe to these words, or do you think Brazil can be back at the top?
BA: I believe that cycles begin and come to an end, and nothing will ever be the same again. Our realistic chances of getting medals were possible until Rio 2016 with this generation of players. I think that – like other national teams – ours is going through a moment of renovation and planning. In order for us to get back to the level we played at in the past few years, we will have to work hard and evolve as a team. That is not something that happens overnight. It’s a job that requires years of work, but I have faith and I believe that despite a period of renewal and new players, we can continue to be at the top of world handball.
Being 30 years old and competing an entire decade in Europe, Arenhart is entering the home stretch of her career as an athlete, however, she still doesn’t know what the future will hold for her.
Do you think you’ll be involved with handball once you retire?
BA: I don’t know. Although I’m becoming a bit old for sports (sighs) I still don’t know what I want to do after handball. I live this handball routine so intensely that once I retire, I might just want to pursue some other experiences outside of sports.
I’ve read that you want to open a place to help people with Down Syndrome in Brazil, how’s that idea developing so far? How will you take part in this project?
BA: Yes, I have a project in mind that encompasses many activities for people with Down Syndrome. I have the desire and the dream that these special people will have more options to develop as a whole. I have a sister with Down Syndrome and I often see that there aren’t many activities or places that are interesting and attractive to her. So, my goal for this project is to be able to offer some new opportunities. As of today, it’s not really possible for me to start working on it, but who knows once I’m back in Brazil, I can set my mind to it.
If you weren’t a professional athlete, what would you have been?
I’d be working in the in the fashion industry, maybe in fashion design.
If you weren’t a goalkeeper, which position would you have liked to play?
Line player or left back!
Who is the most brilliant player that you shared time with on the court?
Do you have any role-models?
Many, but I’ve always admired Cecile Leganger a lot.
Did you take any photos with any athletes in Rio 2016?
How many languages do you speak?
I speak English and Spanish fluently, and I also do fairly well with German.
What’s the strangest food you’ve ever tried?
Shark fins in China and ants in Mexico.
And what’s the food you loved the most? (Brazilian doesn’t count)
That’s a tough one to answer! I love to eat and try new foods.
What’s an ideal holiday spot?
What did you buy with your first salary?
I bought a winter coat, because it was super cold in Spain when I first arrived.
What’s your pre-match music that you listen to?
Currently – it’s Brazilian music.
What is handball to you?