Anna Vyakhireva is one of the brightest Russian handball players of the last decade. In the piggy bank of the 28-year-old athlete gold and silver of the Olympic Games, as well as two titles of the most valuable player of these tournaments. In addition, she is a silver medalist at the 2018 European Championships and a bronze medalist at the 2019 World Championships. Among the fans, many years ago, the girl was nicknamed "handball Messi" because of her small height by the standards of her sport (168 cm) and the ability to score goals in the most difficult situations.
Vyakhireva spent half of her professional career in the Rostov-Don team, in which she repeatedly became the champion and winner of the Cup of the country. The only club trophy that she has lacked so far has been the Champions League. The Rostov team only once reached the final of the main European Cup - in 2019 - but was defeated there by the Hungarian Gyor ETO. A year earlier, the southerners were defeated in the semifinals by the Macedonian "Vardar".
Nevertheless, Anna continued to live the dream of a possible victory in the future, even though she took a long pause in her career after the Tokyo Olympics and returned to the court only in March 2022. However, the suspension of Russian teams from all international competitions threatened to put an end to both her return and her cherished dream. Then Vyakhireva made a difficult decision - to move to Norway to play for the local Vipers. From the point of view of a possible victory in the Champions League, this was the best choice: the team from the small town of Kristiansand had previously won the trophy two years in a row (in 2021 and 2022).
"The prospect of winning the Champions League was the main factor in choosing a team. No money, no living conditions. Anya still has a lot of ambitions, so she made this decision. Before signing the contract, of course, we talked to her about it, discussed the pros and cons, but I won't say that she asked for advice. She made the choice herself. There was no talk of any fears or doubts, we discussed more about how we would miss each other and how we would miss each other, "Vyakhireva's sister Polina Kuznetsova told RT.
At the same time, at home, the Olympic champion faced a misunderstanding. So even the former coach of the Russian national team Evgeny Trefilov subjected her to serious criticism.
"I can be accused of false patriotism or called by another word, but I believe that a person's attitude to the place in which he was born should be different. You can cite the example of Alexander Ovechkin, Vyacheslav Fetisov, but I have a formed opinion on this issue, I, as one person said, do not change my gait. We shook the tree a little, all the wormy apples fell from it - great artists and other guys who earned money here went to other countries. What will you do, God is their judge, "said the specialist.
Vyakhireva was repeatedly asked how she felt about Trefilov's words, and each time the handball player replied that the coach has the right to his own opinion, but only her business is how to build her life and career. At the same time, the handball player did not hide the fact that she was financially a loser after the move.
"Everyone thinks we're leaving because of the money, but it's not close at all. I left because of handball. I left because I wanted to play at a high level, I wanted to develop, I didn't want to stand still. In Russia, this is now impossible, but I would make good money. I lost money. I lost a lot," Anna said in an interview with blogger Viktor Kravchenko.
The new club, before signing a contract with Vyakhireva, conducted a whole investigation, as well as a number of consultations with the Norwegian Handball Association, sponsors and local politicians. As a result, the candidacy of the Russian woman was approved, but Vipers still played it safe and signed an agreement only for a year. At the same time, Anna was greeted unusually warmly in the team, and she quickly gained respect both on and off the court. And in December, when it became clear that the girl fully joined the team, she was offered to extend the cooperation for another two years.
"Anya joined the team very well, primarily psychologically. She feels great there, she is relaxed and happy - she does not worry about any everyday problems, about relationships with partners. In my opinion, this team suits her very well. Well, the fact that she signed a new contract speaks for itself," said Kuznetsova.
The fact that the Russian is on the same wavelength with her teammates was confirmed by Vipers head coach Ole Gustav Jekstad.
"I think Anna has a whole new life now after she came to Norway. She is an amazing player and person," said the specialist.
The Russian justified the trust in every match, systematically moving towards her goal - winning the Champions League. And the two most important games of the tournament, in the Final Four, she spent at an incredibly high level, despite the fact that her rivals took care of her in every possible way and tried to turn her out of the game. But Anna showed all her best qualities, first of all, the ability to think outside the box.
"She is a versatile player, in terms of handball she has everything: technique, tactics, vision of the court, shooting from afar and beating. But what has always distinguished my sister from everyone else is her head, thinking, "Polina shared.
In the decisive match against Ferencváros, Vyakhireva became the most productive player with six goals, and then received the statuette of the most valuable player of the Final Four, adding to the extensive collection of personal awards.
"I had a dream, and it came true here. We started working 11 months ago and now we are standing with this cup. We have worked hard for this and we look very good on the playing field. I just love our "chemistry" and "flow [of emotions]." An absolutely incredible first season. I'm very, very proud. It's important for me to be here and enjoy the game of handball. I just try to give my best here and now," Anna shared with Norwegian journalists.
At home, the outstanding result of the Russians was greeted with enthusiasm, because it is not every day that domestic athletes win prestigious trophies and replenish personal collections with individual prizes. So, three-time world champion Nadezhda Muravyova noted the determination of her compatriot.
"I am very glad that her sports dream has come true. I think that appetite comes with eating, and Anya will not stop at this title. In the name of the goal, she overcame many difficulties. When moving, I did not put my wealth at the forefront, I consciously took risks, because I could face a long adaptation in a new team. But the final result shows that this choice was fully justified!" — said Muravyova in an interview with RT.
The former handball player praised Vyakhireva's performance in the main European Cup, stressing that she was deservedly recognized as the MVP of the Final Four.
"She just had no equal. Anya demonstrated handball of such a high level that there was no alternative to whom to give this prize. And in Hungary we saw two completely different Annas. Even looking at her through the screen, it was clear how focused she was all season to play these two games like this. Vyakhireva played the first match on assists, and the second as a scoring player. At first, she let the whole team play, and then, when the focus of attention switched from her a little, she began to score herself. It was bright, "said the interlocutor of RT.
As Kuznetsova admitted, she was not sure until recently whether the European Handball Federation would dare to award the prize to the Russian athlete, given the political situation in recent months.
"In terms of Anina's abilities and skills, I, and I think many people, had no doubt that she deserved to become an MVP. But because of politics, all sorts of thoughts crept in. And I am very glad that in the end everything was decided fairly," the handball player emphasized.
According to Muravyova, there are simply no players equal to Vyakhireva in world handball now.
"She's playing at a kind of prohibitive level now, and not so much in terms of physical ability, but in terms of understanding and speed of the game. The defenders just catch the air with their hands when she flies past them, and this, of course, is amazing!" - Nadezhda admired.
Kuznetsova agrees with this, which, however, is not inclined to call her sister "handball Messi", although this metaphor has recently been increasingly heard in the media space.
"I am not a supporter of such comparisons, but I have no doubt that my sister is a great player in her sport. There are many of the strongest players, someone likes Messi's game, someone likes Ronaldo, it's a matter of taste. I can say one thing: Anya is unique in handball," the Olympic champion concluded.