Zulic: “We don’t want to be happy with just one great match”
A new coach since the EHF EURO 2020, more experience running through the team and a home crowd behind them — what can Slovenia achieve at the Women's EHF EURO 2022?
The first of the three co-hosts to open their campaign, Slovenia will play the first match for group B on Friday, taking on EHF EURO 2020 semi-finalists and 2021 World Championship bronze medallists Denmark at 18:00 CET.
It looks to be a tough task, but Slovenia have a history of big upsets in the early stages of major tournaments over the last few years. Indeed, in recent years, the fact they have not progressed beyond the preliminary round has been a question of consistency more than anything.
Looking back to the EHF EURO 2018 preliminary round, Slovenia overthrew eventual runners-up Russia, who were also the reigning Olympic champions at that time. At the World Championships in 2017 and 2019, Slovenia beat the teams that went on to win the titles in their opening games — 2017 against France and 2019 versus Netherlands.
With the team hardly changed since those victories, it is clear Slovenia can achieve big things if they can keep their top level of performance over multiple matches. As centre back Nina Zulic highlights, success at a tournament relies on exactly that.
“Every time in a World Championship or European Championship, we won against some great teams. But this is not enough, you know, this is a championship. You are playing matches every two days — hard matches,” says Zulic.
“The European Championship is hard. Every two days you have a great team and but it's important that we focus every game, that we have our rules, that we try to keep them up. It’s going step-by-step. All of the team of Slovenia, now we don’t want to be happy with just one great match. We want to be better and better every game and this is the the spirit of the championships, so we are going for that.”
As the team responsible for those memorable upsets is largely intact, with Zulic part of the key trio on the back court alongside the high scoring Ana Gros and Tjasa Stanko, the recipe to find success seems to need only minor tweaks. One change has been on the bench, with EHF EURO 2012 champion coach Dragan Adzic taking over in 2021 after Uros Bregar led the team for many years.
“He focused on some things that he thought that we need to improve and be better. And I think we do that. First of all, our spirit altogether — that we are more open with each other,” says Zulic, outlining the main influences brought so far by Adzic. “Also in the defence, that we all all prepared in every situation, in every second.”
The team chemistry and preparation will be important as Slovenia target progression from the preliminary round for the first time since the EHF EURO 2004, when the best result so far was recorded — ninth place. The home advantage can also be critical, and Zulic says that, with Adzic’s guidance, the players have been extremely focused to be ready for the EHF EURO on their own turf on an individual level as well as collectively.
“This championship at home gave us a little bit more energy. We gave ourselves more and we fight. In this year and half, every girl worked on herself, that she will be better, and that you will represent your country at home like you're supposed to do. I’m sure that we will not disappoint anybody — first of all us, the girls, the team, our staff, and then the country,” says the 26-year-old.
“It's a great opportunity, to share these emotions with your family, friends, with your teammates. To be home where you have supporters, where you have people — that they will come and they will cheer with us. This is some extra and special feeling and I’m happy and grateful that I’m here. And I know that all of the girls are grateful that we can show our best at home and and hope that a lot of people will come and we will be happy all together.”
It's important that we focus every game, that we have our rules, that we try to keep them up. It’s going step-by-step. All of the team of Slovenia, we want to be better and better every game and this is the the spirit of the championships, so we are going for that.
In group B, after their opener against Denmark, Slovenia will meet Sweden then conclude the preliminary round against Serbia. The three top teams in the group will progress to the main round and it looks set to be a tough contest for the tickets to the next stage.
Denmark are not the only side in the group with a recent major semi-final behind them — Sweden played for a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last August, finishing fourth. Six months later, Sweden achieved fifth place at the World Championship.
Serbia have not had a major success since their silver medal at the 2013 World Championship at home, but only narrowly missed progression to the knockout round at the last two editions of the global event. Like Slovenia, they can overthrow the most powerful opponents at their best. If all four teams bring their best form, the group B table could be very tight.
“We have two Scandinavian teams. They are good in this fast handball. If you do mistakes, they can go really fast on the fast break and score. So it’s important to have a clear head, to play with your roles and to not try not to get these easy goals, because like that they are getting stronger,” says Zulic.
“With Serbia, we played in the last championship [the 2021 World Championship] against them. Unfortunately we lost, but it’s different — our team is different; also their team is different.
“Everything is open, but still, in the European Championship every team is hard, so it’s important that we have our focus and we try to have our system and just focus on us and not that much on the opponents. Like that, I believe we can do a great result.”