Women at the Heart of the Game: Branka Mijatovic’s return to coaching

ER 2842 (1) EHF / Danijela Vekić

Women at the Heart of the Game is a weekly series in the build-up to the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 that features former stars who have transitioned into a new role. The eight and final episode features  Branka Mijatovic.

The former Slovenian international is a two-time EHF Champions League winner, a member of the Slovenia national team at their first major tournament breakthrough, and today an assistant coach with the national team.

Only one more day to go and the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 finally throws off.  The 16 teams are ready to battle for the throne in the first major international handball tournament on Slovenian soil since the Men’s EHF EURO 2004.

Slovenia first appeared at the Women’s EHF EURO 20 years ago. A lot has obviously changed, but one name is connecting the team from back then to the current one that is going into its eighth European Championship: Branka Mijatovic.

The experienced centre back was part of the Slovenian team that played at the EHF EURO 2002; 20 years later, she is part of the coaching team, assisting head coach Dragan Adzic.

Branka Mijatovic comes from Ljubljana, where she started playing handball. She got into sport through figure skating, later trying table tennis and basketball. Like many children at the time, she was introduced to handball through school. And even though she became well-known as a centre back, that was not her first position.

“I had friends from school training handball, and they were missing a goalkeeper. So I joined them and started as a goalkeeper – but with time I moved to the back court position,” Mijatovic says.

At one point, she quit her other sports: table tennis and basketball.

“I was more into handball and was making fouls which were not allowed in basketball. I started to play handball in a small club near my home, but very soon I joined Krim, where I spent my whole career.”

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Krim Mercator Ljubljana marked her handball story. Mijatovic joined the club in 1993 and stayed there until her retirement in 2003, playing three EHF Champions League finals – and winning two of them – including one as the team captain.

She joined the club after a call from one of the ambassadors of the EHF EURO 2022, Marta Bon.

“I could choose Olimpija or Krim at the time, but after a call from Marta Bon, I ended up in Krim as the club had the wish of becoming the best club in Slovenia,” Mijatovic says.

“When Vinko Kandija joined as head coach, it had a big influence. They had a project of Krim becoming No. 1 in Europe and that was something that made me become a professional player. It was hard at the beginning with many sacrifices, but it was all worth it.”

Very quickly handball became an integral part of her life, even though at the start of her career, Mijatovic never thought it would lead her in the way it did. Under the helm of Vinko Kandija, Mijatovic and Krim reached their first EHF Champions League final in 1998/99.

“I had dreams of being a professional athlete, however, I never thought it would lead me here. Of course, as time passes by and you are more and more part of it, your goals are getting higher: Olympic Games, medals, trophies, great players, it is everything you can dream about,” she says.

“I wanted to see, if you give yourself 100 percent, if that will be awarded with success. Some dreams came true, some did not.”

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Branka Mijatovic continued her successful club story also with the national team. Even though they never won a medal, she is proud of her time among the country’s best and all the matches played with courage and love for the sport.

“I enjoyed being in the national team. I think we were good, but our opponents were playing at a higher level at the time. No matter the results, being part of the national team is the crown of everything. We were proud of what we accomplished. To be selected among the best to represent your country is a special pride. I have always wanted to play for the national team.”

The Slovenian team was mainly built with players from Krim.

“We knew each other very well and we played well. No matter the opponents, we always wanted to win. I wanted to win. We had a very good atmosphere in the team, each of us knew we are the best in our country and that it is what is important when you are playing for the national team,” says the current assistant coach.

Branka Mijatovic finished her professional career in 2003 after lifting her second EHF Champions League trophy. Does she have any regrets?

“I would never change my handball path. I ended my career in Krim with two European titles under the helm of Tone Tiselj. I am very grateful to my coaches in Krim, they taught me many things. I only wish my story would have started sooner; maybe my dream of going to the Olympic Games would have come true then.”

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Looking back, Mijatovic is satisfied with her career.

“I still have many friends from that time. All ups and downs shaped me to the person I am today. The decision to retire was not easy, but every player knows when it is their time. I started to have injuries and I knew I wanted to retire while still at my peak.”

Mijatovic said goodbye to handball at the end of the 2002/03 season – but that could have been six months later.

Having played at two IHF World Championships and the EHF EURO 2002, Mijatovic was supposed to delay her retirement by six months and play a final tournament with the national team, at the 2003 World Championship.

“My retirement has an anecdote. I decided to retire after winning the EHF Champions League in 2002/03. With the 2003 World Championship in Croatia looming, I made a deal with the president of the federation: I waited with my retirement for six more months to play at the World Championship; in return I got 10 days of vacation in August and would join the team’s preparations later.”

Things, however, didn’t exactly go according to that plan.

“Destiny had something else in mind. I got pregnant and my life turned in a different direction. Instead of playing at the World Championship, I was expecting my first child; my first and brightest medal,” Mijatovic says.

Meanwhile a mother of two sons – who both share her passion for sport but play football – Mijatovic is enjoying family life in Grosuplje, where she lives nowadays.

“I never thought about what I wanted to do after a handball, that is also something I keep saying to players today, think about it. It will come sooner than you expect. I am grateful I become a mother at the end of my professional career as it completely turned things upside down. But of course, I wanted to stay close to handball'', Mijatovic says.

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Having the EHF EURO at our home court is something special. Some may say the team is not strong enough. However, handball taught us there are always underdogs writing history, and I always believe in success. And it is not only about this competition, but also about development for the future.
Branka Mijatovic
Slovenia national team assistant coach

Years after her retirement, her first coaching steps were in mini handball, working closely with Uros Zorma’s academy. It was her wish to test herself in that field to see if she could transfer her knowledge to others.

“I finished all courses for a coach and got my master coach license. It was a challenge for me to start with the youngest. I started in mini handball. I loved working with children as they are honest and you can see clear results of your work,” Mijatovic says.

Mijatovic became one of the few female coaches to take over a men’s team. Talking about gender equality in a field where changes are still coming slowly, she defied all stereotypes in 2011, becoming the head coach of HC Grosuplje in Slovenia’s second division.

“It was very interesting because of the relation between men and women. That was a great experience for me. I had ambition and clear goals, and theirs were not at the same level. It was a challenging time for both me and them. However, I learned a lot from that experience.”

She was also part of Krim’s youth academy before taking up the role of assistant coach role next to her former head coach Tone Tiselj in 2013.

“In 2013, Tiselj called me to join him at Krim. We were doing our best, but that season wasn’t as successful as we thought it could be. Unfortunately, our story ended there. I felt overwhelmed in a way. I didn’t want to go back to mini handball, because you have to instill love for sport and handball to the children, but I didn't know if I could do that at that time. When I feel I am not giving the best of me, I rather not do it at all. That was when I decided to take a break from coaching.”

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However, Mijatovic remained in the sport in a different segment: the media. She became a commentator for a TV station, giving her new opportunities and making her learn new things while staying close to handball.

“I became a commentator on TV for Krim’s matches in the EHF Champions League. That was how I stayed in touch with handball. It is a job that was something completely new for me, but I have great colleagues who are teaching me. Sometimes, I still feel like a player and have a pure reaction to things happening on the court, not thinking that I am on TV.”

Things changed again in September 2021 when Dragan Adzic took over the national team. With a clear goal of preparing the team for the EHF EURO 2022 on the home ground, the Montenegrin coach called Mijatovic and asked her to join him.

“Maybe I would still be on pause if there were no call from Dragan Adzic. Having the EHF EURO at our home court is something special. Some may say the team is not strong enough. However, handball taught us there are always underdogs writing history, and I always believe in success. And it is not only about this competition, but also about development for the future.''

After six years away, Mijatovic had returned to coaching.

“I was motivated to be part of the EHF EURO we are hosting, having a chance to do something on your home court. Playing at home, I remember when playing the finals with Krim, those matches can give you additional energy and confidence you even didn't know you had.”

As an assistant coach, she has a very clear role in the team, sharing a similar vision of handball with head coach Adzic. Mijatovic's biggest wish is to help the players reach their maximum.

“I wanted to be part of it and try to transfer my experiences to the players. To tell them I know how they feel, as I was in the same situation they are in now. Communication is the key. With communication, you can find a solution to a problem you ran into. If you don’t have a true team, a team spirit, it is hard to succeed,” Mijatovic says.

“We also have to look towards the future and find the key players and future stars for the national team. I am happy that Adzic and I have a similar idea about handball, and he gave me support, especially regarding some defensive tactics.”

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It has been almost 20 years since she stopped playing handball, a sport that has changed and progressed in many ways since then. More goals, faster shots, new rules, etc. However, despite all changes, one thing remained the same: team spirit.

“Handball is faster, and it is hard for players, but that can be overcome with love and passion. That is why I want to be there for them and help them overcome problems. Playing at home can be overwhelming. It is not important how many goals you score or how many saves you make, it is important that in crucial times you are strong, you are fighting for every ball and are not falling under pressure.”

Mijatovic will be one of 10 former stars now working as a female coach at the EHF EURO. There are many female coaches working with children and in lower-tier competitions, but they are still too seldomly seen in top-level handball.

“I think that it can be hard for women. It takes a lot of time to become a coach and you have to give yourself 100 percent. It is a project. I believe women have a hard time choosing this career or they start that their journey later than then men due to the fact they want to become mothers, start a family and they don't have enough time for it.”


That is the reason Mijatovic admires Bojana Popovic.

“She is a mother of two, she is the head coach of both Buducnost and the Montenegrin national team. It must be hard, and I believe she is a rare example of something that should be easier,” Mijatovic says.

Slovenia start their EHF EURO journey in Celje on Friday at 18:00 CET  against Denmark, the fourth-ranked team from the last European Championship. Tough opponents to start with for Slovenia but having strong support from the stands can give them an extra boost.

“Sport needs full concentration, there are no second chances or delete buttons. You have to be in the moment and give your best. The main thing is to ignore your ego, to put aside all differences to reach a common goal. That is the energy people can feel and what drives fans, too. I hope Slovenia will achieve that in Celje and Ljubljana,” Mijatovic says.

“I will never forget Vinko Kandija’s words: 'It is like a fight. When you are down and you think you can't do more, you must find the last atom of energy to overcome the obstacles.' So, never stop fighting.”

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