When it was all over, twelve thousand Danes travelled back to their homes heartbroken, their dreams shattered after 70 minutes of intense handball. On the floor of the Jyske Bank Boxen, a few Romanians enjoyed what is sure to rank as one of the best nights of their lives to date. A hundred more were cheering and singing in delight from high up in the stands.
Meanwhile, an ice-cold Swede was giving his first interview after guiding Romania’s girls to their remarkable success. “I tried not to be emotional during this match,” Tomas Ryde told the interviewer. You couldn’t make it up.
A lot has been written and said about Ryde’s assault of Denmark for the Women’s World Championship. Given a group with three forces of world handball, Romania lost to all three of them after winning its first two easy matches to qualify for the Round of 16. Ryde knew it would not matter in the end. He was obsessively focused on the 6th match. Romania won that crucial 6th match, against the odds, playing its best handball at the tournament, eliminating the reigning world champions, Brazil, and setting up a date with the tournament hosts.
And what a date it was!
This team has been criticised for being weak psychologically since what seems to be forever. In a country where women’s handball has always ranked among the top sporting disciplines, Romania was always going to be in the spotlights at the World Championship. After the three group defeats, the headlines were not pretty. After winning against Brazil, the girls were instantly regarded as heroes, together with their now highly respected coach, Tomas Ryde.
Cristina Neagu’s name is familiar to any handball fan around the world. She is Romania’s most valuable player and was named Player of the Year in 2010 by the IHF. When appearing at Romanian television after the match, she took time to point her disapproving finger at the constant wave of criticism that flew towards Denmark after her team’s group meltdowns. The mental side of Romania’s team is as strong as it has ever been. Weak psychologically? Pha…
Romania started strong, taking the early lead in what was a slow but intense opening to the match. Despite coming across moments of insane pressure, the team never looked back. It overcame each and every obstacle it faced, some of which the kind of moments you’d be able to forgive it for not handling. Leading by one or two goals for the majority of the encounter, but never extending the advantage by more than three, Romania was pressured several times, with Denmark tying up the game at 13-13, 19-19, or 24-24 and even having the chance to go ahead. It never did. At least not in regulation time.
What happened in the last of the normal 60 minutes allotted defied belief. With Romania leading 27-26, Denmark had what appeared to be the last attack of the match. The referees pointed to the 7m line. If the hosts missed their penalty shot, they were out of the tournament. To the delight of Romanians everywhere, goalkeeper Paula Ungureanu saved the shot, but it rebounded back and a second penalty shot followed. Denmark tied the match, but Romania had nine more seconds to attack.
Another penalty shot! It would be the last of the game, and Neagu stepped forward to grant Romania access to the semi-finals. But it was not over. It is moments of great tension that they say sporting champions thrive in, but Neagu’s throw was saved by an inspired Denmark goalkeeper. With the score tied, it agonizingly went into extra-time.
It was then when the host team managed to take the lead for the first and only time in 70 minutes, 28-27. But Romania’s resilience endured. The ball entered the net five more times before the team had its last attack of the night. In the dying moments, Aurelia Brădeanu somehow managed to find Adriana Nechita, and the right wing scored the winner before twelve thousand opposition fans that were left bewildered. There was no time for Denmark to put the ball in play anymore. It finished 31-30, and Romania’s dream run will continue.
It was the most amazing ending to a most amazing fairytale of a match if there ever was one. “I was never this nervous in my whole life,” right back Luciana Marin would admit while interviewed minutes afterwards.
The night belonged to Romania and Cristina Neagu. For her 15-goal contribution to the match, Neagu was selected as the most valuable player in the Jyske Bank Boxen. Here is a player that has the ability to carry her team and lift it up to a level where everything is possible. Sure, there were other heroes out there. Paula Ungureanu’s performance was once again remarkable, as were veteran centre Brădeanu’s moments of magic. “I have no words to describe how proud I am of the whole team,” Neagu rightfully told reporters in the heat of the moment. The emphasis was on the “whole”.
From part-time failures to heroes of the country, these girls brought magic and amazing happiness to Romania’s sports lovers. The team showed strength beyond belief to come out as the winner, the kind of strength many have doubted still exists in Romanian sport.
Well, it does. It is a truly fascinating week, and who is anyone to say the fairytale will end when the girls meet Norway in the semi-finals on Friday?