Brazilians are famous for being successful in football and volleyball.
But they've not just been ones to watch at Lima 2019. They're a nation to look out for at Tokyo 2020 too.
In recent years, Europe’s top clubs have started to sign Brazilian men's handball players the same way football clubs have done for more than for 30 years.
This year, Macedonian side RK Vardar clinched the EHF Men’s Champions League title. One of their stars is Brazil's Rogerio Moraes Ferreira who became the top scorer of the final scoring six from six in the final.
The European Handball Federation (EHF) called the 2.04m giant “the monster of the line”.
When he first signed with his first European club, German top club THW Kiel in 2015, coach Alfred Gislason said: “He is the biggest prospect in his position in generations.”
And it only takes a quick search to find other dominant Brazilian names in European handball. Jose Toledo has signed with the reigning EHF Champions League winners RK Vardar.
So it's fair to say that Brazilian handball players are making waves all around the world.
And the women are right up there too
If we take a look at women's handball, we easily find dominant figures such as Eduarda Amorim who is playing for Hungarian side Gyori, one of the best clubs in the world. She was voted World’s Best Handball Player in 2014 too. A title her compatriot Alexandra do Nascimento had already been awarded back in 2012.
Barbara Arenhart is a very good and very charismatic goalkeeper who has won the EHF Champions League a handful of times, and Ana Paula Belo, Brazil’s Rio 2016 top goalscorer is another shining star in European handball.
This is just to name the most obvious Brazilian names in European handball.
How it all began
It was a huge surprise when Brazil clinched the Women's World Championship title in 2013.
Apart from South Korea’s victory in 1995, no other country from outside Europe has ever won the trophy.
But the rare feat of a non-European team clinching the highest accolade in handball can be explained by taking a closer look at their coach.
In 2009, the Brazilian Handball Confederation embarked on a goal to make handball "one of the most important Olympic sports in Brazil". To do this they signed on Danish coach Morten Soubak. The then 45-year-old was hoping that his origins from the birthplace of the sport could help him move things forward in a country heavily dominated by football.
But no one ever expected that he would lead Brazil to the Women's World Championship title just four years into his stint.
“We were already looking promising at the World Championship on home soil in 2011, where only a last-second goal saw us go out in the quarter-finals,” Morten Soubak recalls in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel.
The defeat that paved the way for world domination
In 2011 Brazil hosted the Women’s World Championship.
Despite home ground advantage, the hosts fell short in the quarter-finals when they were defeated by Spain 27-26 after a last-second goal. But the potential showed by the home side did not go unnoticed and the interest from European clubs spiked.
"All of a sudden the export of players to Europe exploded,” Morten Soubak told Olympic Channel.
"A lot of European clubs started to contact me as they could see that there were interesting players coming from Brazil with huge potential." Soubak recounts.
The exposure of the players in the European league was a major contributing factor to the growth of the sport. “After that, we also did well at the London 2012 Olympics and eventually became world champions in 2013. And that just increased the interest for Brazilian players,” the Dane shared.
The European Connection
35 kilometres from Vienna, a small town called Maria Enzersdorf with less than 9,000 inhabitants is home to one of the most successful handball teams in EHF Champions League history.
Hypo Niederösterreich have won the title no less than eight times and the Austrian side reached out to collaborate with Brazil back in 2011.
“Our project with Hypo Niederösterreich where we sent eight players plus me as a coach really lifted the Brazilian national.” Soubak shares.
He became the coach of the well-renowned club while still working as the coach of the Brazil's women's handball team.
“It was for them an attempt to lift Hypo and get some of the best Brazilian handball players. The project was eventually effectuated by the Brazilian Olympic Committee. They helped with the financing of big parts of the project. Kudos to the Brazilian Olympic Committee for seeing the potential of this idea,” says the 54-year-old Dane.
The enormous success led to Soubak getting nominated for the World Women’s Handball Coach of the Year award by the International Handball Federation (IHF).
During the time of this collaboration, two players, Alexandra do Nascimento and Eduarda Amorim claimed the best player in the world award in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
“That hype around Brazilian players continued through to the Rio 2016 Olympics and it has since been very clear how much many Brazilian players have developed by moving to Europe.” Morten Soubak to Olympic Channel
“In the beginning of my time in Brazil, I was always joked, “As a Brazilian footballer you can always go to Europe and they will hand you a contract even without a trial. If you were a Brazilian handball player, they would just send you back home without a contract."" But that has changed now.
Handball players from Brazil are a hot commodity and even those that don't make the national team, still manage to secure a contract with at club in Europe.
And the evolution within the women's team has also had an impact on men’s handball in Brazil.
At the 2019 World Men’s Handball Championship, Brazil enjoyed their best result ever by making it out of the group stage to eventually finish ninth.
The coach that put fire in Brazil's belly
Despite the faster than anticipated success story of the 2013 Women's World Championship title, the road to victory wasn't an easy one.
In the semi-finals of that tournament, they faced Soubak's home team and handball powerhouse Denmark.
The three-time Olympic champions were the favourites to sweep the title and the Danish press wrote articles about how the Danes had one hand on the trophy.
This infuriated Soubak who printed out articles from all the big Danish papers and translated them to his player telling them, "Look, this is what the handball world thinks of you. They don't think we stand a chance! Let's go and prove them wrong."
He ignited the team that went on to pull off a major upset, beating Denmark 27-21 and eventually overcame the Serbian hosts in the final 22-20.
In an interview with Olimpiadia Todo Dia, Alexandra do Nascimento recalls what happened during that time with the Danish coach at the helm and his importance of the greatest conquest of Brazilian handball.
"It has to do with Morten. You can't avoid saying that. I remember that in the very first training, he said that he would win a medal in a great championship with us."
As one of the pioneers in Brazilian handball, the now 37-year-old shared one of the secrets to Soubak's success, "For him, our handball had to be our style. Vibrant and intense, always," said the first Brazilian to be named IHF World Player of the Year.
The road to the Olympics via the Pan American Games
The women’s team had their sight on something big at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Not only was it the biggest handball tournament, but it was on home soil too. The motivation was sky high and this time, people did have Brazil down as one of the medal contenders. But Soubak’s Brazilian ladies crashed out in the quarter-finals after being defeated by The Netherlands 32-22.
The Dane is no longer at the helm of the Brazilian team and is pursuing a new challenge, leading another handball nation on the rise. After Angola's historically made it to the quarterfinals at Rio 2016, they are dreaming big for the next Games and Soubak has been tasked with leading them to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
But the foundation of his work and legacy in Brazil still lives on. The women's national team, now under the guidance of Jorge Dueñas, romped to victory at the Pan American Games in Lima, winning their sixth title in a row.
The win ensures them a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the men's team can follow suit if they too retain their Pan American Games title.