With the final step on the ascend to the summit looming, Serbia’s captain Momir Ilic shared his thoughts with ehf-euro.com on how far the EHF EURO 2012 host nation’s team have come to be in a position to win their first major handball trophy at the first time of asking.
Ilic, Serbia’s backbone in the tournament, along with goalkeeper Darko Stanic, also elaborated just how much the country’s top athletes drove on each other to aim for greater heights after the men’s water polo team reached the European Championship final in Netherlands while the world’s top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic advanced to the Australian Open final in Melbourne.
Both teams and Djokovic take centre stage on Sunday and Ilic wished for a treble of titles that would throw sports fans in Serbia into raptures.
“We have become popular overnight as we have been in the shadows of other team sports and tennis for a long time, hence it’s a great feeling to be up there. It’s impossible not to play our hearts out in front of 20,000 people as we are also being cheered on by Serbia’s men water polo team and our top tennis player Novak Djokovic. They offered their support after every match we played and I hope that come Sunday evening, we rejoice as a victorious trinity,” Ilic said in his interview.
Serbia and Denmark could not have reached Sunday’s mouth-watering final in the Belgrade Arena in more contrasting fashion, with the host nation marching through with a consistent run of iron-clad defensive performances while Denmark had to deal with a rather bumpy ride.
One of their two setbacks included a 24:22 defeat by Serbia in their Preliminary Round group match in the Pionir Hall, across the two rivers running through Serbia’s capital. Ilic acknowledged his team faced a tough challenge in their quest to overcome fatigue stemming from a gruelling and strength-sapping schedule which produced a plethora of fascinating matches in EHF EURO 2012.
“We took it one step at a time and we all dreamed about a podium finish, but to play for the gold medal is a special feeling we had never experienced before. Denmark have been in that situation quite a few times and that may be their advantage, but on the other hand we are counting on the home crowd support to carry us like it has on the road to the final showdown,” Ilic said.
He then acknowledged how big a part the unique handball philosophy in the Balkans had helped Serbia perform above the expectations of most pundits and even the home fans.
“Croatia have been a force to be reckoned with for a long time and they’ve represented the style nurtured in the former Yugoslavia in the best possible way. Now we are up there with them and I think the kind of handball rooted in this region is entertaining as it has a lot of technical virtues akin to basketball, which is very popular in the Balkans,” Ilic underscored.
“The Scandinavian style, on the other hand, resembles a well-oiled machine which keeps grinding on relentlessly and I believe the contrasting strategies will produce a cracking final. Having entered the Main Round with zero points on their tally, they became a different team overnight and succeeded where everybody would have surely failed. It shows strength of character and we have to be on the same par in that department too,” Serbia’s left back stressed.
Emotions among Serbian fans will once again be running high and Ilic pointed out how much their support lifted a team that came together through the thick and thin to stand united in the biggest game of their careers.
“We were forced to mature quickly as a team and we gave more than we expected ourselves to in order to repay our fans for their fantastic support. Our team spirit is impregnable but it will be a mountain to climb in the final because beating a team like Denmark twice in the same tournament is a difficult task. We have to contain their fast breaks which sometimes make play-station skills look easy,” he said.
“It’s a one-off and anything can happen. One good save or shot could decide it and although we are exhausted, the adrenaline pumped into us by our incredible run in the tournament should carry us in the final."