On the 10th of May 2015, in Budapest, Cristina Neagu and her team, ŽRK Budućnost Podgorica, were playing in their second consecutive final of the Women’s EHF Champions League. In a recording of the game, two TV commentators for the European Federation discuss the strong points of the Montenegro players and of the Norwegians of Larvik HK, while watching footage of the teams arriving and going to their locker rooms. When they see Neagu, earbuds stuck in her ears, her eyes hard and her eyebrows creased, one of the commentators remarks: “It’s strange, but she never looks happy.”
“To put it positively,” his colleague pitches in awkwardly, “she always looks concentrated.”
“Ok, that’s a nice way of putting it.”
In the next shot, the Budućnost captain is smiling at the cameras.
“There’s Petrović now, she always looks happy, big smile on her face.”
In the hustle and bustle of the locker room, Cristina sat down and started the game preparations, a ritual which takes about 20 minutes. She changed into the white and blues of the team for which she’s been playing left back since the fall of 2013, she wrapped the fingers of her right hand in white sticking plaster — the thumb because it’s been hurting, the index and ring finger to protect her skin — and she put on her knee pads.
The commentators spoke of the seven goals Neagu had scored in the semifinal the day before — “practically unstoppable” — and of how the team had an invincible season behind it. They had last lost a game exactly one year earlier, also during the League finals, to the Hungarians of Győr, their recent rivals. Neagu had scored more goals than anyone on her team, but it hadn’t been enough. It had been the second time that the Romanian player had lost the most important club trophy after losing in the 2010 finals back when she was playing for Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea. In 2015, though, things were looking different — up until the day of the final, she had already scored 99 goals in the League and was one double-header against Serbia away from another Romanian qualification to the World Cup.
In Budućnost’s first attack, Neagu got the ball from the left and was just getting ready to overtake an opponent when she took a wrong step. She fell to the blue floor, screaming in pain, less than 50 seconds into the game. “This could be an absolute disaster,” said one of the commentators, while Neagu was limping off the court, supported by the medical team.
Since past accidents have kept her out of the game for 26 months in all, each time you see her down you wonder how bad it is and how long it will take for her to bounce back. In January 2013, she ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during training, just three months after the surgery on her right shoulder had finished healing — a surgery so difficult that it’s been known to end careers.
In less than ten minutes she was back in the game with a bandaged ankle, though she had suffered a sprain. She would have kept playing even with a more serious injury, believes Dragan Adžić, Budućnost’s head coach — that’s how badly she wanted the trophy. She only scored three goals against Larvik, just enough to match Croatian player Andrea Penezić for the top scorer title, and enough to contribute to a victory she had been wishing for since childhood, when she used to tell her teammates on the junior team that she would one day win the Champions League and that it would be just the beginning.
The League trophy was the first of 2015, which turned out to be better than any season so far. One month later, she was the Romanian national team’s top scorer in the double-header with Serbia; she turned 27 on the 26th of August, and in December she shone in the World Championship in Denmark, where she scored 63 goals and made assists for another 24. She was the highest-scoring player, best left back, and best player of the World Tournament, in which Romania got the bronze medal.
In the audience at the World Championship, in the press room, and on foreign television, there has been talk of her deserving, more than anyone, to be declared the women’s Player of the Year in 2015, a distinction which the International Handball Federation awards in the beginning of the year, based on votes from specialists, journalists, and fans. (This year, the announcement will be made in April.) She would be the second player to be awarded the title twice. She got the first one for her results in 2010, when she lost in the Champions League final playing for Oltchim, but earned Romania a bronze medal in the European Championship. “It’s the most beautiful moment of my whole career,” she said back then, at 22. “I hope that I won’t stop with this and keep growing as a player. All time of this world is in front of me. I am looking forward to my future.”
She didn’t get a chance to enjoy her trophy: surgeries followed — on her shoulder and knee — which made her spend more time at doctor’s practices and recovery clinics than around the handball goal. There were times when she alone still believed she would have a comeback, and times when even she stopped caring when, how, or whether she would.
Now she is on the court again, again the best player in the world. Because she learned how unpredictable sports are, she plays each game like it’s her last — the way she did in the final against Larvik, the way she did in Denmark, too, though her leg and ankles were hurting and she could barely move her shoulder. Early last year, she signed with Budućnost for another season, refusing offers — some of them from Romania, of up to 250.000 euros per year, more than what she gets now. Budućnost is the best team in Montenegro and, for now, in Europe; but it’s also the club to which she says she will always be grateful for transferring her when she was hurt and for helping her bounce back.
To understand her fall and her return, as well as her relationship with her club, I went to Montenegro in February. I wanted to speak with the people around the team and with her — though I knew she avoids interviews. I wanted to see her play in a game which has since become a classic — Budućnost versus Győr. I also wanted to see how the world’s best player felt after the best season in her career.
Intimidated by her attitude towards journalists — she always seems so focused and serious — I armed myself with a letter from one of the hundreds of young girls who want to be like her when they grow up. “My mother once told me that you’re the only 8 that’s worth a 10,” wrote, in calligraphic, tilted letters, Teo, a nine-year old handball player in Războieni, a village in the center-west of Romania. “To me you are the best and I want to be like you. That’s for sure.”
Not much is known about the beginnings of Cristina Neagu’s career, so before I left for Podgorica I watched junior training sessions and games to see what handball is like for children. I met little girls, aged eight or nine, with pigtails and colourful sports shoes, carrying towels and water bottles in backpacks as tall as themselves. Little girls who run until they break into a sweat, who plunge fearlessly to the floor, and who can’t wait to make a throw. Handball is also attractive because it’s the team sport which has brought the country the best results over the last few years. One World silver in 2005, one European bronze in 2010, and one gold for the U18 Junior World Championship in 2014 foretold last year’s result; and, this spring, club teams such as CSM Bucharest or HCM Baia Mare will play in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That is also where the little players dream of going. A few of them hope for more, maybe even for Budućnost. “You won’t catch Cristina Neagu, you know, she’ll be old by then,” their teammates tease them.
The Romanian championship abounds in stars — from Brazil, France, or Norway — worshipped by the little girls in the Bucharest schools. They also adore Neagu, of course, but that goes without saying, because they think she’s perfect: she scores from any position, but she also passes, she has strength, and, when she lifts her full 1.80 metres off the ground, she sends the ball far over the heads of her opponents.
One day I happened upon a local championship derby, where 14- and 15-year-old players shoved and hit each other for a full 60 minutes to the backdrop of shouts and drums beat by their parents. One of the girls left the court with bloodstains on her shirt, another got a cracked skull, but they didn’t complain — what’s the worst that could happen, an even bigger crack?
Even so, from what the coaches said, I got the feeling that girls nowadays are not like Cristina, who gave it all to handball. “It doesn’t come from their soul, from that burning feeling, they aren’t up for that huge amount of work that would lead them there,” I was told by the coach of a school sports club who saw several female players in the national team grow up; however, she says she raised them with work. She still dreams of discovering “a player of genius.”
At Grade School No. 59 in the neighbourhood of Ghencea, Bucharest, where Cristina studied and first touched a handball, I found a sports hall like many others: wall bars, basketball hoops, and wooden bleachers on the sides. It was chock-full of children getting ready for an athletic contest. When they heard I was writing about her, they asked their sports teacher what Cristina was like in school. She was well-behaved, remembers Gabriela Constantinescu. Pretty, slim, with short hair, quiet and always serious. “It was like she was born serious.”
Unlike the little girls who now play thinking of their idols, Cristina had never heard of handball until she was in fourth grade. She used to run all day around the block of flats in Ghencea where she grew up, she used to play football, basketball, and many other games; she was not the kind of child that would just stay home and watch TV. Neither her parents — her father is a taxi driver, her mother is retired — nor her two elder sisters were the sports type, but Cristina loved exercise.
At some point, coach Maria Covaci of School Sports Club No. 5 made a recruitment visit to her school and noticed her right away. “She was very mobile and easy to work with,” Covaci remembers. “She was the sort of child who took to physical exercise very easily and very nicely.” She could have done any other sport, the coach believes, and she was always careful not to lose her — particularly to basketball. Cristina found it funny how she could do anything she tried in handball, so she kept going to training because she was having fun. They would train at school, sometimes starting at six in the morning, other times late into the evening. They would run in Herăstrău Park or around the Steaua stadium, which was also close to her school. They played their matches in the Floreasca Hall, the headquarters of the Federation and the only place in Bucharest where I found, on a corkboard, photos of her from the junior games. (The handball section of her old school sports club was closed, and there is no poster or photo in School 59 reminding the students that “a star was born there,” as the sports teacher now says.)
Soon, Cristina started to win awards and titles. She would take them home and show them to her parents with joy and even some surprise. In the local and national junior competitions, she was almost always declared the most technical player and the top scorer. She started to miss more and more classes, but she didn’t want to go to a sports high school. She went to Grigore Moisil highschool, where, just like on the court, she wouldn’t settle for low grades. She wanted to be good in school and good in sports, and she wanted to prove that athletes are not dumb.
When she was about 14 or 15, in a junior training camp, she met Patricia Vizitiu, who is now right back for HCM Baia Mare and for the national team, as well as her best friend. Cristina (Cris, as her friends call her) was silent and aloof, and didn’t always make it onto the national junior team, while Patricia (Pati) was an extrovert and a member of the permanent team. They couldn’t be more different, but they happened to become roommates. “They used to match us like that,” Vizitiu told me, “the crazier ones with the better-behaved ones.” Patricia knew she would be on the team, and the game was where she intended to give her all, “to break her neck.” However, Cristina, who wasn’t as certain of getting a place on the team, worked just as hard for the training sessions.
“Though she didn’t play, she prepared as if she were getting ready for the 2008 Olympics.” Vizitiu remembers a junior test when, during the running trial, she saw Cristina leaping towards the finish line to get there first. When she got up, her knees were bloody.
Their friendship started, Vizitiu says, after she asked Cristina to borrow her sports shoes so she could make a quick trip to Bucharest. Vizitiu had several pairs, but she kept giving them to her teammates, so at the time she only had her flip-flops left. Cristina had just received her first pair of Adidas from one of her older sisters, and she loved them “madly.” But she didn’t think twice, and Vizitiu was impressed with her roommate’s willingness to share, though, unlike other girls, she hadn’t grown up in a wealthy family. (She took off the shoes when she jumped over a puddle, so as not to get them dirty.)
After that, Vizitiu jokingly says, she gave herself a mission: to make friends with her hardworking, talented, but silent roommate. She had always wanted a friend to grow up with, and Cristina didn’t seem to have a single mean gene in her. That was also why, later, Patricia chose to play by her side for a lower-ranking team, rather than being a reserve in the leading national club.
In 2005, at 17, Cristina was declared Best Player in the European U17 Championship in Austria, though Romania finished in second place. The titles and medals kept coming: bronze and, again, Best Player in the Youth World Championship in Canada in 2006, bronze in the European Junior Championship in Izmir in 2007. She impressed her coaches with her spark and dedication — she would earn her place with a sort of “constructive meanness,” with the way she organised the game, with how she adapted to the opponent and found solutions. But also with her throws, above the level of other players her age.
I got to Podgorica three days before the Champions League match with Győr, which would decide the first position in the Champions League group . The capital of a country which has only been independent for ten years — a bit like Croatia before it was cool, said The New York Times — ,Podgorica has just over 180,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by hills, which gave its name (“Under the Little Hill”). The apartment blocks are just as gray and cold as the ones left behind by Communism in Romania, except a little more faded and covered in makeshift repairs. The locals made some room for me under their parasols and told me that Budućnost is the pride of their city and the most successful sports club of all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Almost all of them had heard of Neagu, whether they were fans, watched mostly men’s handball, or didn’t care much for sports. They told me they thought she was beautiful, that she seemed to be a good person, a regular human being — which was why the Montenegrins welcomed her.
I had heard the same things from Nemanja Savic, a Serbian journalist with whom I had had a talk before arriving. Montenegrins are more stubborn, more determined, and have more fighting spirit than the Serbians, “so you won’t hear them talking about defeat.” He told me coach Dragan Adžić doesn’t bring in famous names, but rather players who would fit the team’s playing style. He likes fighters and he doesn’t want any divas on his court. That was why Cristina had fit in so well. “She almost became a local player, even more so since she also speaks the language. The fans love her. You can’t not respect a player who fights for a team like she does.”
As I was getting closer to the Morača Sports Centre — the team’s home — and to the day of the game, the answers I was getting were firmer and firmer: “She’s our best player.” “She is God!” Supporters who didn’t speak English — and many don’t — gave me a thumbs up and said, “Top, top!”
In 2006, an 18-year old Cristina transferred to Rulmentul Brașov, where coach Mariana Tîrcă, one of the most important Romanian handball players, gradually promoted her to First League. “She was a child who had come to a senior team,” remembers former player Nicoleta Alexandrescu, but she earned her spot, and not only did she not leave the team, but she became essential. (“Everyone expected Cristina to throw.”) With her and Vizitiu, Rulmentul was the national vice-champion for two years in a row. In 2008, she also played in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, the second most important European competition in women’s handball, in which Neagu was the top scorer.
In 2009, after nine months of playing without pay, Neagu and Vizitiu asked the Federation to release them from their contract and got a transfer to Oltchim, the best club in Romania. They already knew their teammates there from the national team, because Vâlcea was the gathering place for the cream of Romanian handball, so they easily fit in. The same year, Neagu was declared the world’s best young handball player. But the year she became a star, the year the Romanian press started to call her “the Messi of handball” and people started to recognise her on the street, was really 2010. That was when she played for Oltchim in the League final and earned the national team a bronze in the European Championship, where she scored 53 goals and 36 assists — more than any other player.
What many people didn’t know was that 2010 had also been the most painful year in her career. They found out about that shortly after she was declared the best player in the world, when, apparently out of the blue, she stopped playing. Her right shoulder, which got a jolt each time she made a throw, was hurting too bad. It had already been hurting for a few years, since Brașov, back when she was playing both for the club and for the junior and senior national lots. Because no one could figure out what was wrong with her (doctors from Romania, France, Belgium, and Denmark hesitated between a tendon lesion and an injury to the ligamentous apparatus), for a long time she played through the pain, gritting her teeth, as other handball players do. Vizitiu has admired her since childhood because she never took it easy on herself, neither in training nor during matches. They both played injured, taking shots, infiltrations, painkillers after accidents, but Cristina was on the court for every match, 60 minutes out of 60. (“That’s how it is when you’re young, you think less and put more heart into it,” she would later tell me.)
“I’ll do anything — even if I break, I’ll come back with a medal,” she said to her former coach, Maria Covaci, in 2010, before she left for the World Championship, where she took painkillers every day. “Give me something so I can play,” she used to tell the team doctor. “I’ll give you my right shoulder, I don’t need it,” Vizitiu, who is left-handed, used to say.
Someone should have told her to stop sooner; maybe then it wouldn’t have come to surgery, believes Florin Oancea, now the doctor of the national team. “But no one did that for her, no one told her ‘That’s it, stop right now and go see what’s wrong with you.’” Oancea says that someone could have been him. She was a child, and he was team doctor for Rulmentul, then for Oltchim. And, although he went with her to foreign doctors and tried to find treatments, he didn’t know how to help her. In the rush of 2009 and 2010, they all got carried away, including she, who would have done anything to play.
In February 2011, great former handball player Anja Andersen, from Denmark, became Oltchim’s coach. In the past, she had tried to get Cristina transferred to FCK Copenhagen, because she had seen in her the same love for the game that she had had herself until she retired, at 30, because of heart problems. Oltchim had several exhausted players, or teammates who played with injuries, but when she saw the amount of pain her left back was in — she couldn’t change her shirt or tie up her hair — she asked her what she would think about no longer playing for a while. Neagu didn’t seem ready, so they agreed that she shouldn’t do any throws for the next two matches in the Champions League — she would only pass and play in defence . During the first game, she did, however, make one throw. When the Danish coach called her out and asked her why she did it, she answered that she had felt the girls were expecting her to. From the sideline she saw that the team was doing well and even won, and her shoulders relaxed a little. After another game, she agreed to stay on the bench.
Andersen told me that many people blamed her for not sending Neagu onto the court, but she admired her courage to listen to her body for the first time.
Neagu herself felt she shouldn’t go on like that — it wasn’t good for her, and it wasn’t good for the team. She couldn’t train properly, she wasn’t at her best during matches, and the opposing teams had started to notice she had a problem. Andersen went with her to a doctor in Denmark, who advised surgery. She had heard of other handball players who were never the same after that, such as Simona Gogîrlă, who said her throwing strength had dropped by over 25%, or Gabriela Rotiș-Nagy, who still had pain after eight months. She chose not to, preferring to undergo treatment. Vizitiu said Neagu was using so many creams that the smell in the room had become unbearable.
Andersen kept her benched, the team suffered as a consequence, and the Danish coach was fired after only one month and four days. She had won two matches and lost two, a result which was insufficient for Oltchim. The team management, unsatisfied with the withdrawal of their best player in the middle of a season that wasn’t going too well, were asking her whether she would come back. The newspapers wrote she preferred to stay on the sideline because she was paid well either way — 150,000 euros a year. “Having a player like Neagu and being unable to use her is a loss for the team”, Petre Berbecaru, the former team president, told me. “She had pain before too, but she did her duty,” said Radu Voina, the coach who replaced Andersen. And she wasn’t the only voice urging her to play.
But Cristina refused to go back onto the court. No one had stopped her before Andersen, and she had started to understand that she needed to think of her body if she wanted to keep playing, although she felt like she was disappointing her team when she wasn’t in the game. “I evolved on too many levels, all of them intense,” she said back then. “I never thought of myself. It’s time for me to do that.”
Still, she hoped to avoid surgery. At the recommendation of Ion Țiriac, she went to an Austrian clinic for acupressure therapy and didn’t train at all for two months, but it was all in vain — when she started throwing again, the pain was the same. Meanwhile, after a humiliating defeat with a difference of 11 goals against Budućnost, Oltchim had missed the qualification for the League semifinals.
It was also Țiriac who, in June, told her of a doctor in New York who had also operated on tennis player Maria Sharapova, who had recovered well. Cristina got an emergency visa for the U.S. and went to see him. From there she called Andersen, with whom she had kept a close relationship, to tell her she had found a solution. When she found out she was alone, the Dane, who was then in Boston, went to keep her company — she had also undergone shoulder surgery and knew it would be hard for her to manage on her own in the following days.
“I think this is something more complicated,” said the doctor, who works with baseball and basketball teams and is a surgeon for one of the best orthopaedic hospitals in the world. He had her do a CT scan, then explained to her what he saw: a hole in the cartilage, frequent in baseball players, most likely caused by strain during the growth period. He recommended surgery, which meant regenerative reconstruction of the cartilage: through holes made in the bone (called microfractures), the cells in the marrow would become oxygenated and, in time, fill the hole with new tissue.
Being the body’s most mobile and unstable joint, the shoulder is hard to treat and doesn’t recover easily. “Cristina is badly advised, and there is a risk she may never play handball again,” said Voina back then. “If she chooses the surgery, I doubt she will ever go back to what she once was.” The American doctor told her the recovery would take at least one year. “It’s your call,” Andersen told her in New York. Cristina called home, talked to her friends and family, and decided to go ahead with it. She felt she was in a desperate situation and had no other choice. She was 22 and she wanted to play handball.
Cristina didn’t think for a single second that she would never be the same again. Not even when she needed help to eat or get dressed, not even when she had to learn to do all that with her left hand. She would go for check-ups every two months, but progress was slow, so slow that the doctor told her there was no point in doing an MRI or a CT scan every time, particularly since they were expensive — about 2,500 dollars each. She paid part of the recovery expenses, but considered them investments into the future. (The club contributed as well.)
Oltchim was getting ready for a new season as trophy national championship holder, but it was missing its best player, and its main sponsor — the Oltchim chemical company had announced that it wasn’t sure how much longer it would be able to support the team. Cristina, however, kept training as if she were playing every match. She spent four or five hours each day at the Traian Sports Hall gym in Vâlcea, where she worked a lot on her leg muscles and did light exercises for her shoulder. When she started running and regained full mobility of her shoulder, she would go on the court and ask the arena employees to turn on at least one of the lights, just enough for her to see the goal (which she wouldn’t be aiming at anyway). If you called her in the morning, she was on the court; if you called her in the evening, she was still there, remembers Cristina Vărzaru, former captain of the national team and her close friend.
“Are you insane? You’re out of your mind, you still have one year of recovery to go, what do you think you’re doing?” the girls would ask. “You spend all your time at the gym, that’s not normal, what are you doing there all day long?” Vizitiu tried to get her to slow down, go shopping in Bucharest, but to no avail.
“I don’t know how long this is going to take,” Cristina would tell those who kept obsessively asking the same question, from the club managers to journalists and fans. “People should first of all wonder how I’m feeling physically and mentally. I’m a human being, I don’t want to be seen as a handball-playing machine.”
During her almost 20 months of absence — from February 2011 to the fall of 2012 — Oltchim missed the qualification to the League final by one goal, in May 2012, and Romania ranked 13th in the 2013 World Championship (the second worst result in 60 years) and didn’t qualify for the Olympic Games in London.
It was no less than nine months after the surgery when she first threw the ball again. It was with both hands, and aimed only at a springboard which sent it back to her, but she was happy. The night before her first training with the team, in September 2012, she couldn’t sleep. She had a million questions: whether she would ever be the same again, whether she would make any mistakes, how the girls would react. Pressure was high. Oltchim had had a troubled summer — the chemical company couldn’t afford to support the team anymore, but it had managed to get a one-season sponsorship deal from OMV Petrom, which was going to contribute several hundred thousand euros, just enough for the club to pay its players. After Voina, Danish coach Jakob Vestergaard was now working with the team, and he told her he couldn’t wait for the doctors to allow her to play again.
“Welcome back,” he told her after the first training. “You’re just the same as before.”
The first match, in which she only played for five minutes, on the 10th of October 2012, was an away game in Brașov. She only did one throw, which resulted in a seven-metre score. Both she and the supporters, however, were waiting for the Champions League home game on the 14th of October, against Hypo Vienna. After having chanted her name at every game she watched from the bleachers, the gallery now greeted her with a banner: “20 months of pain, now you’re back to reign.” At minute 19, Vestergaard signalled her to get onto the court. She stood, took off her blue track jacket, and approached the sideline.
“Ladies and gentlemen, number eight, Cristina Neagu,” the commentator announced, and the crowded hall let out a roar she would never forget, a roar that made her legs tremble — a roar like that of Italian football supporters when their best player comes onto the field, a fan remembers.
She played for 31 minutes, she scored three goals, and Oltchim won 30–25. At the end, the team went around the court, saluting their supporters; they were heading back to the lockers when the gallery started to chant her name. “Cris-ti-na Nea-gu! Cris-ti-na Nea-gu!” — like slogans sung out in football stadiums, with voices supported by drums. She returned to the court, ran to them, applauded them, kneeled onto the blue floor and took a bow, arms outstretched.
“What are you doing, get up!” someone called out from the gallery. Somewhere in the back, someone else shouted out in happiness: “Hey, the idol is back!”
“I think by now you can go back to being Cristina Neagu,” Vestergaard told her early in 2013. They were getting ready for the first home game in the main group of the Champions League, after having won them all in autumn, and Cristina had scored for each of them.
On Monday morning, the 28th of January 2013, during gym training, she told a teammate that she was feeling so good that, if she gave the wall a push, she would bring it down. That same afternoon, during court training, she was chasing winger Ada Nechita and leaped for the ball. When she landed, her knee slipped out from under her.
She rolled onto the floor, screaming so loudly that she scared the whole team. “What’s wrong, Cris?” Paula Ungureanu asked from the goal. “My knee slipped, my knee slipped,” she answered between cries. The doctors took her to the side, gave her something for the pain, and wrapped her knee in a bandage she wore until the next day when she went to Bucharest for an MRI. Before going to the hospital, Cristina went home for a quick visit. When she saw her from the balcony, in crutches and with a brace she had borrowed from a teammate, her mother started crying. “That’s enough, I need strong people,” she told her parents when she came in.
At the hospital, when she took off her bandage and saw how swollen her knee was, she knew she had ruptured her ligaments. She went straight to Vâlcea and, during the two weeks before the surgery, she kept crying. She didn’t go to the court, she didn’t watch the games. She kept wondering why it was all happening to her — she who wanted to play so much, who loved this sport so much, and had worked so hard over the last months. Why, after the trouble with her shoulder, had she also injured her knee?
After the surgery, which she underwent in Belgium in late February, she couldn’t eat or sleep, and, for a while, she stopped caring about anything. She spent the first month at home in Bucharest, where her mother cried each time she walked into her room or when she saw on TV the news announcing the end of her daughter’s career. She would do recovery exercises for five or six hours a day, but she did them mechanically. Her physiotherapist remembers that she was frustrated, particularly when she saw she couldn’t bend her knee as much as the patients on the neighbouring tables.
That season, her absence weighed more heavily on Oltchim than the first one, says former president Berbecaru. “With her on the court, we would have made it into the Champions League final. With Neagu, we could even have won, and then maybe the team’s life wouldn’t have ended there.” In the summer of 2013, Romania’s most successful handball team was disbanded, and the “Galactics,” as the Oltchim players were called, scattered among other teams. Like the others, Cristina, who hadn’t yet recovered from her surgery, was told she would have to find another club.
After last year’s World Championship, Cristina went back to training in Montenegro more tired than ever. Apart from the problems with her shoulder, knee, and ankles, which had reappeared because of excessive strain, she also had muscle aches. She played in the League’s first game, an away match with Győr, but she felt like her body wasn’t obeying her anymore. After the game — the team’s first defeat in Europe in the last 20 months — she talked to the club officials and decided to take a break, halting all training for two weeks.
The girls’ health and well-being comes first, coach Dragan Adžić and sports director Bojana Popović told me — many say that the former is the best handball player in history and a national idol in Montenegro. Transferring her in the summer of 2013, when she hadn’t yet recovered after the ligament surgery, was a great risk, Popović explained to me after one of the team’s trainings, while the players were stretching and doing recovery exercises. But they were willing to wait.
Out of the corner of my eye I was watching Cristina unwrapping the white bandages from her long, slender fingers, then cutting the ones around her ankles with a pair of scissors; stretching her arms and legs, then massaging them with a foamy cylinder; taking a handful of ice from the cool box, putting it in a plastic bag and slipping it under her shirt, onto her right shoulder. (“I can’t even remember what it was like without the bandages, coming to the court and being ready for training in five minutes.”)
“People must see that I still exist, although I haven’t played in three years,” she told herself in the early summer of 2013, when she asked her agent to find her a team that played in the Champions League. “We will always want Cristina,” answered the president of Budućnost, whom she had refused in the past, as she wanted to stay in Romania, with Oltchim.
In mid-June, when she went to meet the team, her leg looked worse than they expected. It had only been four months since the surgery, and not only had she not started playing again, but if she stayed seated for an hour, she got up with a limp. She couldn’t believe it when the people in the club told her they would only need her in top shape in January, for the main group in the Champions League, and that until then she should focus on her recovery. “They’re insane, how can I stay on the sideline for six more months?” she thought.
While laughter and music waft towards us from the court, Popović tells me that, at first, she thought Cristina was rather aloof and distant — as several coaches and players have described her. “It’s partly my fault as well, because of my attitude,” Cristina later told me, “and people probably find it hard to get to me. If you’re not willing to know me better, it’s very easy to label me.” She didn’t speak the language and wasn’t on the court with the girls — she was always in the gym or on the sideline. She didn’t even try too hard, because she thought she wouldn’t be there long — maybe for one year, until she recovered and got a better contract.
After the first training session, however, she felt like she had been playing there for ten years. After less than three months, she told her agent she wanted to stay. The girls — most of them Montenegrin, Serbian, and Croatian — are used to helping the few foreigners in the team settle in, and in Cristina’s case they knew it was important for that to happen as quickly as possible. They translated Adžić’s directions to her (since he speaks no English), and, by the second half of the season, Cristina could already understand him.
Though people expected her to come back in January 2014, she played her first game in early October 2013. She scored four goals and made four assists. During the League season that was just starting, she scored 64 times. She also returned to the Romanian national team in December 2013 for the World Championship in Serbia, where she scored 29 goals, until Romania was eliminated in the eighth-finals. In the beginning of 2015, the International Federation declared her the world’s second best player, after Brazilian Eduarda Amorim.
After each successful moment in the February game against Győr, Saša Jončić, a local journalist who told me about the whole history of the club, turned to me with a smile as if we were sharing a great secret. You don’t have to be a handball initiate to realise that what Neagu is doing on the court is impressive. You’re left speechless, unable to understand how she can stay suspended in the air for so long, where she gets all that strength in her throw (her balls reach 100 km/h), how she can lunge or slip through walls of opponents shoving her and grabbing her shirt. You can also tell something special is going on from the reactions of those around: goalkeepers slumped to the floor in dejection, coaches shaking their heads in amazement, teammates applauding her in admiration.
After talking about her game with handball specialists, I understood that what makes her the best player in the world isn’t just the goals, no matter how spectacular. It’s also about her capacity to create and build up attack phases, to make scoring throws, to analyse and decide, at the last second, where to send the ball — to the goal or to another player with a better position. It’s about how she feels the game flow, the court and the ball, things you don’t learn in training but are rather inborn. Training only hones them, says Adžić, who thinks Neagu has also greatly improved her defence game since she came to Montenegro. It’s about the speed with which she changes direction, rare in women’s handball. Some say she has a man-like playing style, because she’s not afraid of contact and battles.
You feel safe playing with her, explains Cristina Vărzaru. “The way the pass comes at you also matters a lot for your morale.” Another colleague from the Romanian national team adds: “If she tells you ‘Take a step that way’ and you find it absurd, after you take it you realise it changes everything.” “I miss playing with her,” agrees Vizitiu, who adds it’s easier to have Neagu on the court because she makes the opponents follow her, creating paths for her teammates. She understands handball holistically and always makes the right decisions, as I was told, during the World Championship, by Swede Tomas Ryde, Romania’s current team manager, who finds it easy to discuss tactical plans and game schemes with her. “She knows a lot about handball, she thinks about it a lot and she wants to be in control. She leads the team, she challenges her mates, she wants to push them forward, and she demands a lot of them, sometimes maybe too much.”
Neagu often speaks of the importance of teamwork. It’s not just because she doesn’t like to stand out, but also because she knows you need to be part of a good team to be the best. It’s something her foreign coaches seemed to understand: she can’t win games on her own, nor should we expect that of her. Her role remains essential, as I was told by Popović, and by Adžić, and by Ryde. But the team can help her, take over some of the load, block opponents and, when needed, play and win when she’s having a bad day or isn’t on the court at all. This didn’t always happen back in Romania, where club officials expected her to spend all 60 minutes on the court, deliver the final throw, come back in to help the team, play with injuries if needed. Maybe that’s why she’s always said that foreign coaches have a different way of working than Romanian ones, a statement for which she was criticised, most recently by former team manager Gheorghe Tadici, who promoted her to the senior national team: “She forgets where she started and she attacks Romanian coaches every chance she gets. As if she learned to play handball on her balcony at home.”
The one who discovered Cristina Neagu, the one who honed her skills, the one who launched her, the one who led her to performance — these are trophies for which several coaches and mentors contend, as proof that her talent is so great that everyone would like to be at least partly “guilty” of it. “Many boast about how they molded her, when really they should be grateful they were her contemporaries,” said Cristian Gațu, former president of the Romanian Handball Federation, who adds that, by the time she quits, she will be the best Romanian handball player of all time.
Cristina’s strong personality isn’t to everyone’s taste. Besides, unlike other players, she speaks up when she has something to say. “Shame on those who criticised us,” she stated after the victory against Denmark in the quarter-finals of the World Championship. After returning to Romania, she continued in an interview for Mediafax press agency: “We’re fully aware of what people write about us when we play badly, but I can’t stand it when someone speaks ill of us and the national team, because I know how hard we work. As for Mr. Tadici, who claimed I attack Romanian coaches, I would like to ask him how one can make comments about someone’s education when he was calling the members of the national team ‘oi, girls’.”
Other former coaches have experienced her outspokenness too. One of them is Voina, who found it easy to work with her — because she was an exceptional athlete — but also difficult, because she kept asking questions and demanding explanations. Her teammates experience it too; she gestures and frowns at them when something doesn’t sit well with her. The same goes for journalists, who find her difficult to approach, hard to understand, even arrogant. At 22, in Vâlcea, she candidly said on a TV show, “If I knew what supporters think right now, I would tell you.” Often she would announce, on her first step into the conference room, that she was in a hurry and they shouldn’t keep her too long. During last year’s World Championship, she looked a foreign journalist straight in the eye and reminded him, in English, “You said that was the last question.”
She believes it is important to call things what they are. She told Doctor Oancea that he may have been wrong about her shoulder pain (however, she still trusts him, as she knows he tried to look for solutions); she told her friend Vizitiu when she thought she was making less than perfect choices in her career or when she thought she was feeling sorry for herself. “I’m a frank person, I don’t want to be something I’m not,” she told me after the game against Győr.
“We definitely shouldn’t blame her for it,” Vărzaru says, “because that’s how winners are, that’s who you want to be next to when you want to win.”
In Budućnost she can be that winner without the pressure of having to save the day one game after the other. The team has a solid playing style, and Neagu is surrounded by one of the best handball players in the world, so she can relax more while she waits for the post-World Championship fatigue (and, possibly, the tension of the delayed announcement of the Best Player of 2015 title) to wear off. She plays, she scores, but she is discrete. That’s how she was, eventually, in the home match against Győr, which her team won and in which she only scored twice, getting annoyed when she missed or was blocked, but remaining present for most attacks while she was on the court.
After the game, she went to physical therapy, and I waited for her in front of a restaurant whose chairs had beige slipcovers with bows in the back, like the ones in wedding arrangements. The restaurant is behind the arena, right by the locker room exit, where some twenty children were hunting for the players, hoping for autographs. Most of the players had left already, but they wouldn’t budge. I asked them who they were still waiting for, and they said Katarina Bulatović, one of the team’s legends, and Neagu. “Cristina Georgiana Neagu,” as they called out to her when they saw her.
She stopped and posed for photos with them, her face serious. Then we went into the restaurant, where she sat down without taking off her black nylon jacket. The first thing she told me was that she was very tired, and she did look like it. I hadn’t meant to have our conversation so late — it was already 21:30 — but the next day she was leaving for Belgrade to get a shot in her shoulder. I gave her the letter from Teodora, hoping it would help break the ice, but she folded it with her long, thin fingers, nails painted red, and put it aside, saying she’d read it at home.
Then she ordered a Fanta in Serbo-Croatian, which she now speaks fluently. Before I had a chance to ask her anything, an old man with a cane stopped by our table and kissed her hand. She thanked him, standing up.
She told me about Budućnost, about how they helped her bounce back after her injuries, and about dealing with her surgeries and recovery periods. At some point — maybe because it was late, maybe because we were both far from home — I felt her lower her guard. Her voice became warmer, her forehead lost its creases, and the dimples in her cheeks started to appear more often. She took off her jacket and lost herself in tales and anecdotes. We started to talk about the books she likes to read — Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela (because she likes to keep learning), Steve Jobs (because she is passionate about all things Apple-related), biographies of coaches and athletes such as Phil Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Monica Seles — and about how she can’t stand it when people compare her with Messi, because she feels it takes away some of her identity.
She told me about how she’d never felt so drained and physically powerless as after the World Championship, though now she has found the courage to say when she feels like that; about how much she cares for the team they built together there and about how she knows it will be hard to match the performances she reached in 2015. (She does want to win an international championship title with Romania, though.)
“If you get to know me a little, you can tell I like to play and I would hate to ever be on the sideline,” she told me. “Unfortunately, though, accidents and physical issues force me to.” She knows that people expect her to play well in every game, that Budućnost wants to win the Champions League again, and that Romania hopes to qualify for the Olympics. She knows that these feats also depend on her, and she would hate to disappoint her teammates. But what she seems to have understood along her journey — since the years when she would have taken any painkiller to be able to get in there and play — is that no matter how hard she works and wants to, she will not be able to keep the same level all the time, flying above her opponents and bombarding their goal. After stretches during which she seems to be coming from another planet, there are days when she can’t move. An athlete’s time on the field is limited, and their bodies are vulnerable. Particularly hers.
Tonight, it’s time for her to go home. It’s close to midnight by now, and the lights in the restaurant have gone out. She’s reopened Teodora’s letter and started to laugh, particularly because the little girl was asking her to say hi to Dragana Cvijić, the team’s pivot and her closest friend in Montenegro. (A few days later, she wrote back to Teodora.) She put on her jacket, took her takeaway order, and offered to drive me home in her club car, a Seat Ibiza. On the way there, I told her I’d only become interested in handball recently; until then, I had been intimidated by it.
“Why intimidated?” she asked.
“Because it seemed so difficult. And complicated.”
“True, it’s a difficult sport.”
She became serious, focused, the way everyone knows her.
“Still…” I said in a low voice.
“Still,” she continued for me. “Here we are, breaking our knees on the court, and people at home say: ‘Oh, you couldn’t score from there.’ So how can you still care about what people say?”
Maybe we should remember that handball sometimes hurts, and let her take care of the game. She plays for the club which helped her come back — for the national team she loves — but most of all, for herself. She has lost three years she can never get back, three essential years of an athlete’s career. She doesn’t have a lot of time left on the court — about five years, she thinks — and it’s still too early for her to think of what she’ll do after this.
Until then, she’ll keep taking blows and collapsing to the floor, and the doctor will have to come running with a bag of ice. But she’ll stand up and she’ll keep playing, fearlessly, the way she’s done after every injury, the way she’s been playing since she realised handball is that thing that she’s always been good at: “When I get onto the court, I know what I can do and I’m not nervous at all, because I’m confident of my strength.”