Duvnjak: “It is crucial to win against France”

FEATURE: Domagoj Duvnjak will not help his teammates on the court on Wednesday, but he will be Croatia’s number one fan in Arena Zagreb for the make-or-break game against France

Sidelined Domagoj Duvnjak had to watch the match versus Norway in the stands, but went down to the court to share the joy with his teammates. Photo: Uros Hocevar

There is nothing worse for a player than to sit in the stands and feel powerless, become a fan of his team, after an injury. The pain is more intense if one suffers an injury just after returning from one. But the path to greatness is hard and Domagoj Duvnjak is walking it.

The Croatian superstar came back after a serious knee injury just in time for the EHF EURO 2018. The iconic 29-year-old playmaker had nine months off court, and was ready to play for his national team after completing his rehabilitation in Kiel and the end of last year.

But in the 55th minute of the EHF EURO 2018 opener against Serbia, when Croatia were leading by nine goals, Duvnjak fell on the court in considerable pain. It was not his knee, rather a muscle injury in his leg.

Now, as Croatia prepare for the showdown against France, which will decide their fate at the home EHF EURO, Duvnjak is powerless. Croatia have already made the two available roster changes for the main round, therefore, the 2013 World Handball Player of the Year will once again sit in the stands in Arena Zagreb on Wednesday evening.

Back in light training

Duvnjak is still with the Croatia team, and has started light training. He could feature in the next phase of the competition if the hosts proceed to the medal round.

“I am really happy that I am still part of the team and I am there the whole time. Even if I cannot help them on the court, it means a lot to me.

“During training sessions or in video analysis, I offer my input. It is nothing special, I can only offer some advice. I am always there for my teammates,” says Duvnjak.

“A crucial game”

Croatia can proceed to the next round if they win against France, but they will only know the exact result they need after the Sweden versus Norway game. However, Croatia are only thinking about a big victory.

“It is crucial to win against France. I believe we have a good chance to qualify and it is all we are hoping for,” says the centre back, who has won four medals at the EHF EURO – two silver, in 2008 and 2010, and two bronze, in 2012 and 2016.

Croatia were hampered by a tough loss in the last preliminary round match, 31:35 against Sweden, which could prove key when it comes to the final Group I ranking.

“It is normal to have ups and downs at an EHF EURO. It is really important that we got our confidence back with wins against Norway and Belarus. The loss surprised a lot of people, but they came to support us after that and that matters a lot,” says Duvnjak.

“Our eighth player”

Croatia’s woes have been haunting them at the EHF EURO, as Duvnjak’s absence has hampered the back-court line’s ability to compete at the highest level. There were also problems with the goalkeepers in the first four games, but Ivan Stevanovic had a brilliant outing against Norway, with 14 saves.

In Duvnjak’s opinion, qualities such as strong defence, team spirit and a 90 per cent efficiency on fast breaks are what should help Croatia through to the semi-finals.

But there is also a wild card for Croatia at the EHF EURO 2018 – there is no other team that can rely on such superb support. Both Spaladium and Arena Zagreb have been sold-out for Croatia’s matches, and the decibel level should be even higher when the hosts meet France in the do-or-die game on Wednesday night.

“Croatians love handball. People here love our national team and are living and breathing handball. It is a really special feeling to play in packed arenas, especially when there are 10,000-15,000 fans supporting you. They are our eighth player and we will give our best to repay them for their unconditional support,” concludes Duvnjak.

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg