Duenas: "The potential in Slovakia is huge"
For the past five years, the Slovak Handball Federation (SZH) has been trying to improve the level of handball in the country, on both the men’s and women’s sides.
The first step was made five years ago, when Fernando Gurich Mina was named in the technical director position of the SZH. Gurich Mina, who also serves as the Slovakia men’s junior national team coach, also helped unlock the door for one of the most surprising appointments in European handball in the past year.
Three weeks before the double-header against Portugal in the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 Qualifiers, Slovakia announced that Jorge Duenas will be the new coach of the women’s national team, bringing plenty of experience and knowhow into the position.
A perfect match
“It was an offer I could not say no to. I always wanted to get back into coaching, but also continue my academic career at Kirolene, in the Basque Country. So when I got the call from the Slovakian Handball Federation, it was easy to accept the position.
“I knew that Slovakia have big ambitions, I know the development has been quite big in the last years and the potential is huge in that regard. Therefore, it looked like a perfect match for me,” says Duenas.
Featuring at the EHF EURO only twice, in 1994 and 2014, earning a single win, Slovakia is hardly a powerhouse in European handball, rather an emerging team, which is trying to become better and better.
Last December, they finished 26th at the IHF Women’s World Championship in Spain, with three wins, but lost against Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary, before losing another game against Angola in the President’s Cup.
Yet Duenas, who coached Spain between 2007 and 2017 and Brazil between 2017 and 2021 is upbeat.
"There is plenty to work on and the plan is to get better and better over the next years. Of course, it needs a lot of fine-tuning and we know the players need improvement, but this is why we are here for,” adds the Spanish coach.
Experience in these circumstances is key and Duenas brings plenty of it to the table. He transformed Spain in one of the best teams in Europe, with a defence-first mentality, which definitely deterred opponents during the ten-year stint he had.
In that span, “Las Guerreras” sealed two silver medals at the EHF EURO (2008 and 2014), a bronze medal at the London Olympics and another bronze medal at the World Championship in 2011.
However, it will be difficult to translate such performances to Slovakia and nearly impossible to copy-paste the Spanish DNA into the new team for Duenas.
“It is true we had those great tournaments with Spain and the defence was a big part of it. However, I will try to hit the proper balance between attack and defence for Slovakia, because it is very important to adapt to the rigours of modern handball which is now played throughout the world.
“The plan is to create a team that can compete with the best. The pool of players we have at our disposal is good and we can improve the quality of handball here. We just need to play at a faster pace and convert more fast breaks,” says Duenas.
Focus on the future
The first test for the new Slovakia coach will be a double-header against Portugal in group 5 of the EHF EURO 2022 Qualifiers. The two sides are tied with zero points after two games, conceding losses against Hungary and Spain.
But Slovakia put up a good fight in those games, with a 33:28 away loss against Spain and a 30:28 home loss against Hungary - right back Simona Szarkova and left wing Reka Bizikova combined for 30 of the 56 goals scored by Slovakia.
“The plan is, of course, to win these two games, which would give us confidence. I really think we can do it. Qualification to the EHF EURO 2022 will be difficult to seal, almost impossible, but we are seriously focusing on the future,” adds the Spanish coach.
As it stands, after the games against Portugal, Duenas will face his former team, Spain, which will definitely be an emotional moment for him, after spending so many successful years at the helm but this does not deter him from the task at hand.
“It will be a nice moment. But, right now, I am only focusing on the games against Portugal and making my team better and better for the years to come,” concludes Duenas.
That improvement definitely means qualifying constantly for the EHF EURO and the IHF Women’s World Championship. To date, Slovakia have played only 26 games in major tournaments.
Yet if someone can galvanise the entire side, Duenas is the man to bet on.