'A moment with...Xavier O'Callaghan'Article
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A MOMENT WITH: FC Barcelona great Xavier O Callaghan is the first in a series of interviews with EHF Champions League legends

»EHF CL Channel »2014-15 Men's News

'A moment with...Xavier O'Callaghan'

Xavier O'Callaghan meets me at Palau Blaugrana, the home of FC Barcelona, prior to the group phase game against KIF Kolding Kobenhavn. It is a great opportunity for me to talk handball with one of the greats of the game in the place that holds so many memories for him. Despite his busy schedule as manager of futsal, roller hockey and handball at such a huge club, he gives his time generously.

“I was a very good team player”

There is method in my madness. We sit in one of the seats during preparations for the match and as I question him about so many facets of the game, his eyes light up with times past. He relives great moments from the arena. He can't quite believe the longevity he had in the team and in the club. It's not a bad testimonial for the young 14-year-old who left his home village of “Hospitalet de l'Infant” to join Barcelona, that his number 4 jersey adorns the wall of the arena, never again to be worn by any player. “It is the biggest thing a player can receive from FCB.”

“I managed”

His introduction to the first team was due to an injury to a senior player and so he was making up the numbers at training. He never quite believed he would be good enough to play alongside the players he was training with. By his own admission he wasn't fast enough, strong enough or good enough. But he brought balance to a team. He added to the great players around him. It wasn't for him to score ten goals a game, but to make the pass at the correct moment and in this small detail he became invaluable to a team.

“I did what Valero needed”

He knew his role in the team and as Valero Rivero decided everything, he followed orders and ended up playing at the highest level for fifteen years. Even if he can't quite believe it to this day, the “very specific” player that he became meant that his role within the team was to help the other players to be better. It's incredible to listen to him talk about his family sitting in the front rows watching him play and to hear the modesty from a player who has won so much.

“There is magic here”

He retells how teams came to fear the “Palau” over the years. It led to seven gold medals in Champions League handball, even if only six are recognised as EHF competition. The first in 1991 is the former incarnation, the European Cup. But for him, he knows, and that is all that matters.

He looks around the arena as he tells of the comeback against Veszprem, when he saw the fear in the eyes of opposition players, that couldn't cope with the “magic” of the Palau. That strange symbiosis of fans, team and arena. It exists today as well, he admits, referring to the latter day comebacks against Atletico Madrid and Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

“The FINAL4 is good for handball”

O’Callaghan has become the consummate professional. He is an ambassador for his club and one of the most thoughtful of men I have met. Knowing that the home and away finals of yesteryear might have given FCB two to three more CL trophies, he is keen to impress upon me the importance of the VELUX EHF FINAL4. “If handball develops we develop”, is his mantra now. Branding is another area he is keen to see the sport develop. PSG, Besiktas and Porto brands are good for handball. He wants us to do everything we can to achieve more global names. It leads to media, to people discovering our sport. He refers to the group game last season between PSG and FCB and says that although it was only a regular game that the hall was full.

It's only by chance that he is in the position he is in as manager of three sections in the biggest club in the world. A contract of one year was offered to him just as he was deciding to quit handball. He decided against it and by chance he became the manager of the handball section. It's not too shabby for the young boy who grew up disliking his family name because it was so different. Today he loves his Irish ancestry because it differentiates him from the crowd. As if he needed a name to do that.

From parallels between the present team and that of former times, to Valero Rivera and Qatar, Xavi takes us through his story in handball. He thinking is progressive and yet has still time for the flavour of the past. He doesn't sugar coat it, he calls it like it is. He remembers a time even during the golden era when the Palau would be empty for games. He also talks of how important it is for FCB to win in the “right way”. He was once told by Zlatko Portner, that handball is 80% brain and 20% in the wrist and he believes that even today, where handball is more about physical prowess, that there will always be room for talented players in handball.

Xavier O'Callaghan, the accountant, loves numbers, so here is a number for him. He is 100% a handball man and a man whose philosophy is worth listening to.

His love for Barcelona is evident, but his overriding love is for handball as a whole. It was an honour to chat to him even briefly and I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. 

TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain / cor