Babic counts on the hearts of his “cowboys”

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27 January 2017

Despite some injury problems, Croatia travel to Paris full of optimism. The statistics speak in their favour prior to their semi-final against Norway. And coach Babic hopes for another big fight.

“Srce vatreno” (Heart on fire) is the most famous handball and football anthem in all Croatian stadia and arenas. After the thrilling 30:29 victory in the quarter-final against Spain in Montpellier, Croatian coach Zeljko Babic exactly counts on the hearts of his players, nicknamed the “cowboys” at home. “All of them have a big heart, and this big heart we will need in our semi-final against Norway on Friday. I am so happy that we finally have this ticket to Paris in our hands.”

But his side face big injury problems, mainly in the right back position. It is more than in question, whether Luka Sebetic can play anymore at France 2017 after his severe achilles tendon injury against Spain, and Luka Stepancic picked up an also injury. “I truly cannot say, which players will be able to play on Friday,” Babic said, before his team departed from Montpellier to their final destination after their own personal “Tour de France”.

Croatia arrive at Paris with a balance of six victories from seven matches, only defeated by Germany – and winning both knock-out matches against Egypt and Spain with only a one-goal difference each.  When they face Norway it will be their sixth semi at a World Championship and the second semi in the era of Babic after making it to the EURO 2016 semi, which they lost against Spain.

But two days later, Babic took his first ever medal as a coach – after beating Friday’s opponent Norway in the bronze medal match. And only two months later, the Croats eliminated Norway in the qualification tournament for the Rio Olympic Games.

The Croatian players have big respect for the Scandinavians: “They play so fast, so we must also try to beat them with their own weapons, like using counter attacks,” said counter attack specialist Manuel Strlek. “But we are full of confidence now. We have proved our abilities, we can make it to the final. It is a 50/50 encounter with Norway,” added the winger.

Defence specialists Jakov Gojun shares this optimism: “Norway fly over the court, this is even more than just running what they do. But it is one game. 60 minutes separate us from the final. We will fight, fight and fight. Everything is possible.”

Four years ago, the Croatians were eliminated by Denmark in the semi-final. Eight years ago, on home ground, they made it to the final after beating Poland – and later one faced France in the final, which they lost. This could be the pairing for Sunday too. Only three players of the current Croatian line-up had been part of this 2009 final: Team captain Domagoj Duvnjak, wing Zlatko Horvat and Gojun, plus today’s assistant coach Petar Metlicic.

Photo. P. Montigny / Francehandball2017