Back to former glories: Vojvodina, Izvidjac and Lovcen
The EHF European League Men 2023/24 season marks the return of three Balkan teams, EHF European Cup champions Vojvodina, Izvidjac and Lovcen to the second tier competition's group phase, and they are eager to put their handball cities back on the map.
In the last ten years or more, Zagreb, Vardar 1961 and Celje Pivovarna Lasko were keeping Balkan handball on a high level while former strong clubs with rich histories were struggling in Europe’s third-tier or were missing out on the European competitions altogether. However, with Vojvodina progressing in recent years, Lovcen starting a new project and Izvidjac getting a chance to showcase their pool of talent on the big stage, this season is of great value for the Balkan trio.
Vojvodina made significant strides in recent years and, in the 2022/23 season, they rounded it off with a European trophy. Young newcomers and experienced players proved to be a perfect mix. The club from Novi Sad made their European debut in the Challenge Cup 2004/05 season and, until last season, their biggest success was in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 campaigns when they played the group phase of both former EHF Cup and Machineseeker EHF Champions League.
From then, they never made it through the qualification phase of either of the top two European competitions, but Vojvodina never gave up, and started the project of returning back to the top. Club legend Marko Vujin found a new role in Vojvodina after retiring as vice president and only has positive thoughts about playing the EHF European League Men group phase.
“Achieving the group phase of the European League was one of our goals a year ago when we started playing the European Cup. It is a normal path for the club to build a strong team and continue the progress of the club. Our preparation period for the 2023/24 season was successful as we won against strong European teams which gives us confidence but also an additional motive. We need to prove that in upcoming matches. I believe if we play like that we can have a good season in the EHF competition,” says Vujin.
Vojvodina will test their luck in group F against Bjerringbro-Silkeborg, Alkaloid and BM Logroño La Rioja. The well-balanced group will bring exciting clashes to Novi Sad but everyone at the club knows it is not going to be easy.
“The group is strong but I think we have a chance against them and to progress further. But we will have to play on a high level throughout the game. No matter, being a part of the European League is a great honour for the club. Especially only a year after we took the first European trophy. We are the only sports team in Serbia that achieved that last season and I believe we can be the handball centre of the country and be a serious club in Europe in the future,” concludes the former right back.
Men's handball in Montenegro came back into the spotlight after great results of their national team at EHF EURO 2022 and the IHF Men's World Championship 2023, and Lovcen-Cetinje want to do the same. It is been 26 years since Lovcen made the first step into a European season and until 2006 they were regular contenders. However, they then disappeared from the European handball map and since they were not able to make a significant impact.
However, the 2023/24 season marks Lovcen's return. The new project of a strong Montenegro-based club began with bringing back the experienced right wing Mirko Radovic. With Eurofarm Pelister, he played in the EHF Cup, EHF Champions League, EHF European League Men and won the league title in North Macedonia. Now, he is ready to help his childhood club to get back to their former glory.
“I had five great years in Pelister and, as a team captain, we won the title which was one of the goals. I received a call from my hometown club where I started my career. The project is ambitious and serious with a long-term vision. It can help a lot to the city of Cetinje, with handball in the city and in Montenegro. As a national team captain, I wanted to be the first to return home and to show that we can play great handball in Cetinje too,” explains Radovic.
Radović is not the only one who came back home. Vuko Borozan, Ivan Perisic, Bogdan Petricevic and Luka Vujovic also decided to strengthen the team. All of them will try to bring a glimpse of the team that reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2000/01.
“I grew up with that team that played Champions League and they are one of the reasons why I am, and we are, here today, why we play handball. We are slowly returning back to those glory days but we need to take it step by step and work hard. We are going to play against top European teams and we can't wait for the first game,” concludes the experienced right wing.
Izvidjac Ljubuski had two seasons of EHF Champions League experience back in the 2004/05 and 2005/06 seasons and for 14 years, until 2013, they were representing Bosnia and Herzegovina in European competitions. In 2021 they returned to the EHF European Cup Men and only two years later they have received what could be a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the group phase of Europe's second-tier.
The talent generator in Ljubuski gave many Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina national team players, like Denis Buntic, David Mandic, Mirko Alilovic and Marin Sego, a start to their careers in Izvidac. Or, the club was an important stop in players' careers, just as it was for Zeljko Musa, Senjamin and Benjamin Buric and Mirsad Terzic.
Now, with the new young talents ready to take the stage, Izvidjac will try to showcase their skills against top European teams, according to their head coach Toni Colina.
“We didn't dream this big when I took over the team three-and-a-half years ago. However, in the first year, when we took the title in Bosnia and Herzegovina everything fell into place. The team is based on domestic players who took over the leadership role. Getting a chance to play in the European League group phase makes us proud.”
“The team that was playing Champions League in the past will be one of our guiding lights. It is our obligation to show Izvidjac in the best possible light no matter the group which is challenging with top names from European handball. We will enjoy these matches,” says Colina.
Colina is a well-known name in handball and of the young prospective handball coaches, going from coaching mini handball to getting the chance to be the head coach of the Bosnia and Herzegovina junior national team and was an interim head coach of the senior national team during the EHF EURO 2024 qualifiers.
A hard-working coach who seeks the same approach from the players he has known for a long time to be able to keep up with Füchse Berlin, Dinamo Bucuresti and Chambery Savoie Mont Blanc Handball in one of the most challenging groups of the EHF European League.
“I have known some of the players since they were eight, or nine years old. I went through all young age categories with them and now we will play in Europe. It's specific and we have a special bond and this is a great story. This is definitely one of the club's biggest successes in the last 20 years. We still have a lot of work to do, I am not completely satisfied with the preparation period but we will give our best on the court,” concludes Colina.
Photo credit: RK Izviđač Facebook page