Slovenia make history at World Handball Championships

Slovenia's national handball team after winning bronze at the World Championships. Photo: Hina/STA

Winning the first-ever medal at men's world handball championships last evening, Slovenia made history as they beat arch-rivals Croatia in the semi-finals by a point (31:30), earning themselves praise at home and abroad.

"Despite the rather poor first half, I still hoped for a victory," said legendary Montenegrin coach Veselin Vujović, who took over in May 2015 to turn the fortunes of the Slovenian team around.

"Before the match, we hoped the rivals would be tired, which only came true in the final part of the game when we staged an incredible U-turn," he said.

"I'm so happy. As a player I've won all the titles, but this is my first medal as a national team coach and I hope it is not the last."

Vujović is a legend in handball circles across the former Yugoslavia, being a member of the Yugoslav team that won gold at the 1984 Olympics and 1986 World Championships.

Croatia had a five-goal lead at the half-time by virtue of strong defence and numerous counter-attacks against hapless Slovenians.

Slovenia's comeback started around the 40th minute, with the team starting to slowly but surely eating away Croatia's advantage.

It was a payback win for Slovenia as the Croats defeated them four years ago in the bronze-medal match at the world championships in Spain.

The development took somewhat by surprise team director Uroš Mohorič, who said the relatively young team had travelled to France to gain experience for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"But the outcome of the tournament was like a dream, and I dare not forecast what could follow."

Slovenia have so far won two medals at top tournaments, the other being silver at the 2004 European Championships in Slovenia.

Slovenian Handball Association boss Franjo Bobinac, on the other hand, said "we've proved that we are a winning nation and that we never give up".

Bobinac, the chairman of the home appliances maker Gorenje management, also congratulated the coach, saying he had known how to get the team believe in victory.

"I'm fascinated and happy, this is a true miracle. I don't mean just the incredible come-back in the second half, but also Slovenia being third in the world. This is fantastic. I've believed in the boys all the way through and I'm happy for them."

Bobinac, who watched the match together with Prime Minister Miro Cerar, was also happy that the prime minister was at the match, which he believes shows the government's right attitude towards sports.

Slovenia's national handball team. Photo: Nebojša Tejić/STA

The bronze will earn the team EUR 40,000 from the International Handball Federation, while the Slovenian Handball Association will also chip something in, said Bobinac.

"The bronze medal is great for making sports even more popular, especially handball, which has proved to be the most successful team sport in Slovenia," he said.

This is indeed one of the biggest achievements for Slovenian team sports; the volleyball team is the only team to have won medals at top tournaments, boasting silver from the 2015 European championships.

The bronze medal was also praised by national team players, with Urban Lesjak saying that "we've won because we believed in victory".

"The last 15 minutes of our good performance was enough for bronze. The Croats were just too tired, having played two hard games in two days," he said.

Meanwhile, Croatian player Manuel Štrlek said being tired could not be an excuse. "We had an eight-point lead and everything under control, but then collapsed in an unreasonable way. It is entirely our fault."

The Croatian defeat is also resounding in Croatian media, with some reporting about "a shock" given that Croatia had already almost won the match and another outlet running the headline "We've become a nation of losers".

The Slovenian team is meanwhile returning from France today and a party will be thrown for them on Monday afternoon in front of Ljubljana's Town Hall.

In early May, Slovenia will play two qualification games against Germany for the 2018 European Championships, which will be hosted by Croatia.

Source: STA