Today Matthias Casse is standing on the tatami in Montpellier, southern France. As the best judoka in the world in his weight category, up to 81 kilograms, he is the top favorite at the European championship. Unless some stupid Georgian gets in the way again.
‘The new Robert Van de Walle’, is what Jean-Marie Dedecker calls Matthias Casse (26). Before he became a political bully, Dedecker was the success coach of the Belgian judo team for two decades. So he can know. And Van de Walle is so far the only judo man from our country to win Olympic gold. That was a long time ago, in 1980 in Moscow, seventeen years before Casse was born. But it says something about the status of, according to experts, ‘the most complete judoka in the world’.
The Olympic Games are in Paris next year: today Casse is 750 kilometers further south on the tatami, in Montpellier. He is one of the two top favorites at the European Judo Championships. The other one is called Tato Grigalashvili, a Georgian of just under 24. He won Casse’s last three major tournaments. The Belgian became European champion in 2019 and world champion in 2021, the year he also won Olympic bronze in Tokyo, in a match against… Grigalashvili.
“Tato and I are the favorites: now and in every championship to come,” says Casse. “We alternate at first place in the world rankings, we are far above the rest. Still, I don’t focus entirely on him, there are other strong judokas. I try to develop myself in such a way that I can beat everyone.
“Every camp is different, but you can still analyze them in detail. I am a ‘right-wing’ judoka: I try to grab him with my right hand, but he will try to prevent me from doing so. How can I avoid him aborting my attack? That’s what it’s about. Small things that have a big effect. Only when I am ‘in grip’ can I start thinking about judo. If that doesn’t work, I have to put myself in a safe position. These are things you cannot predict.
“I have now won against him twice and lost four times at major tournaments: I know I can beat him. I always perform at major championships.”
No interest in drawing lots
Earlier this year, Matthias Casse won silver at the World Championships and won the Masters. He was eliminated prematurely at a recent Grand Slam tournament. “Results are not equally important everywhere. I see the smaller competitions as a learning experience. I always do my best, but the goal is not to win everything.”
Casse has recently been coached again by Mark van der Ham, the trainer-coach with whom he previously worked successfully. The Dutchman replaced Damiano Martinuzzi, who left for PSG, two months ago. Yes, in judo there are also transfers and clubs or federations that pay more than others. It took some getting used to for Casse. “Every trainer is different. And every judoka needs different training stimuli. Training is partly scientific and partly feeling. Mark feels very good to me. In this way a trainer can make a difference.”
The draw for this European Championship was already drawn on Thursday, but if he has managed to shield himself from outside information, Casse will not know what awaits him. Because he doesn’t want to know. The only thing that is clear in advance is that he will not meet competitor Grigalashvili in the final or the bronze medal match at the earliest.
“I used to want to get that information in advance. Then I started calculating in my head: that one will win against that one and then I will meet that other one in that round and the other one will then be my opponent in the semi-finals. I had a plan in my head, but it didn’t work out in the competition. I was already working on camps three, four and five, while the first still had to be fought. If that expectation pattern is not met, you are not ready for what will actually come your way.
“The first camp is important. If I win that, I’ll see who gets on the tatami after me, and the winner will be my next opponent. I know what their strengths and weaknesses are for the top 30 in the world. This is contained in an Excel file that is regularly updated. I know what to expect. Mark knows that too, we don’t have to think long about the tactics for the next camp.
“Things can happen very quickly at the top level. One mistake is fatal and then you can pack up. If you are nervous or afraid, your opponent will sense it. So you have to show that you are ready, believe in yourself, stand there. That is not always easy, because there is pressure from outside and competition stress. Many judokas are much better in training than in competition. Luckily I never had that. When I was young, I sometimes attacked too easily, but that is still better than not daring to attack.”
Always wanting to win
Between two camps he puts on music (“a little bit of everything, Red Hot Chili Peppers and all that”). Or he has a chat with someone from his entourage. “I try to keep the atmosphere going. A joke here and there. If you constantly put your body under strain, it becomes too tiring. You can’t keep that up all day. The message is to be as relaxed as possible. Just before I go on the mat, I go over the tactical plan with the coach. When we are ready in the tunnel, the focus comes. “I have to do this, this and this.” I don’t pay attention to who is next to me, I am in my own bubble.”
He wants to win always and everywhere. Everything. “Others want to win, but they could accept losing. Not Matthias,” says his former trainer at the Top Sports School, Franklin Pereira. His mentor Dirk Van Tichelt, ‘Brecht’s bear’, who himself brought home Olympic bronze from Rio de Janeiro in 2016, puts it this way: “If they sprint ten times, he will want to win ten times.”
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Casse laughs. “When you grow up with three brothers, you always turn it into a competition, even when playing around. That is not a bad quality for a top athlete. When I was younger, I couldn’t handle defeat at all. I was the best, I did everything for it, how could that be? Now I have learned to place that better.”
The fact that rival Grigalashvili is almost three years younger does not bother Casse. “In theory he has a greater growth margin, but he was also physically further ahead than me at a younger age. At seventeen he already had a beard and a lot of chest hair, I’m still waiting for that. (laughs) In Georgia, training is more intensive at a young age than in our country. We pay more attention not to destroy our bodies, because we do not have a wide pool of top judokas. If one over there has a broken back, they just take another one.”
In the run-up to a major tournament, he sometimes skips other competitions. To prevent him from providing his competitors with extra information. “I want to avoid them knowing me too well. By focusing on training you can also go to a European Championship or World Cup with more innovation: new techniques, different tactical accents. The idea is to stay one step ahead of the opposition. And winning major championships. The rest is less important.”
At the time of our conversation, eight days before the European Championships, Casse still weighed 86.1 kilos. In one week, more than five kilos had to be lost to reach a maximum of 80.999 kilos at the official weighing. It’s exciting, says the 87-kilo reporter who, with great effort, can chip away at a few hundred grams. “Don’t worry, I’m on schedule. I have a weight plan, which states how much I can weigh each morning of the last week. On the last day you will have to lose another kilo and a half, mainly fluid. Two hours before the weigh-in I put on a rubber sweat suit, with normal clothes on top. And then I go for a twenty-minute walk. That will do. It can’t go wrong, I know my body that well now.”
Last Tuesday, Matthias Casse defended his bachelor’s thesis at the Karel de Grote Hogeschool in Antwerp, department of process technology. His dissertation dealt with measurement and control techniques. If circumstances prevent him from remaining active in the judo world after his career, this diploma should help him get started in the chemical sector, where job security is high. “If something goes wrong in the sport, I have something in reserve.”
Could they have already practiced on eclairs with a gold jacket at the Tine bakery in Hemiksem, two years after the bronze eclairs after the Games? Casse laughs. “No idea. Nowadays I no longer live with my parents in Hemiksem, but in the South of Antwerp. My girlfriend is half-American and half-Hungarian, and lived in Budapest for years. She definitely wanted to live in a city. I thought those eclairs were a nice gesture. Something like that creates solidarity in a village.”
The European Judo Championships will take place from November 3 to 5 in Montpellier (Fra). Our country will present 12 judokas.