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10.11.2015, 15:22
Domagoj Duvnjak, born to play handball
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EHF EURO KEY PLAYERS: Croatia’s Domagoj Duvnjak is already among the stars of today, but his natural ability, playing style and unique set of features earn this 27-year-old a spot among the all-time greats
 

Domagoj Duvnjak, born to play handball

Domagoj Duvnjak is among the very few players today who is able to fit the shoes of the legends that graced the court before him.

His winning mentality, coupled with a distinct playing style, makes Duvnjak rub shoulders with the stars of today, as well as fabled Croatian maestros who revolutionised handball; namely, Hrvoje Horvat and Ivano Balic.

However, the humble beginnings of the THW Kiel star trace all the way to his hometown of Djakovo.

Born in a handballing family, with his mother and father both handball players, Duvnjak made his first steps in handball inspired by his father, who was at the time coaching the local handball team RK Djakovo.

His friends and neighbours remember 'little Dule' was persistent in following his father to practice since he was five. They would ride on a bike together, and he would patiently sit and watch before he started playing at the age of nine.

Duvnjak showed incredible promise from his early days, making his senior debut at the age of only 16.

Moreover, Duvnjak became the Croatian league’s best scorer before his 18th birthday. In 2006, coach Lino Cervar, who was at the helm of Croatian heavyweight RK Zagreb at the time, recognised the talent and took Duvnjak under his wing as his protégé.

"When I first glanced at him, I saw a naturally gifted 18-year old with all the right physical and mental attributes to become great.

"Even at a tender age, his cognitive ability far exceeded any of his peers. It was obvious to me he was something special," says Lino Cervar, Duvnjak’s coach at RK Zagreb as well as Croatian national team from 2006 to 2010.

The sideways look

Cervar had a pivotal role in Duvnjak career. Under his baton at the Croatian national team, talented Duvnjak made his debut in 2007 and won his first medal, silver at the EHF EURO 2008.

"My first memories of 'Dule' in the national team go back to 2008 in Porec. He always played more maturely than his age.

"Even back then, he had that sideways look you simply could not read. He does that whenever he is onto some of his masterful moves. He would look to the left, and you knew he was ready to produce magic," recollects Cervar.

However, no matter how talented, to achieve greatness the gift has to be backed by enormous amount of work.

"I watch him playing for THW Kiel, and I take pride in having recognised a player he is today. Since his early days, he already had the makings of a leader, but he never ran away from putting in the big effort to succeed.

"I have endured a lot of critique at times, for handing him a central role in both club and national team. I believed he was born to play handball, and strived for him to reach his potential in every aspect of the game," says Cervar.

In Zagreb and the Croatian national team Duvnjak could grow, watch and learn in the company of developed players like Ivano Balic, forming a lethal partnership with Igor Vori.

However, it was abundantly clear his time was yet to come. And it came in 2009 when Duvnjak joined Bundesliga giants HSV Hamburg.

Ahead of his time

In 2013, Duvnjak scored 73 goals to mastermind his HSV side to the VELUX EHF Champions League trophy, also becoming the best player in the World in 2013.

But even with plethora of accolades speaking in his favour, there are many indicators Duvnjak is a player ahead of his time.

Even when he is not scoring goals, his game is on another level; commanding the defence, or creating chances for his teammates Duvnjak is always a focal point in his team.

Physically, he is the perfect player, but mentally is where he excels. His awareness and dare, playing relentlessly end-to-end and contributing in all phases of the game is seen only in a selected few.

Fast thinking and nimble motion in a player who is almost two metres tall are a rare trait, so is his flair and tenaciousness to take responsibility in most difficult times.

"He is a born winner. I have never seen such a spectre of qualities in one player. He’s got excellent anticipation, making him always one or two steps ahead of the opponent.

"His vision and ability to read the game and the ability to make split-second decisions is unmatched. His game is perfectly suited for modern handball.

"He copes with the pressure excellently and his hand never shakes in crunch time. He put his head where some players won't even put their feet, and is never afraid to take that winning shot," claims Cervar.

At the EHF EURO 2016, Croatia will be seeking their first final appearance since 2010, as well as their first EHF EURO gold.

Duvnjak’s skill is essential for any chances the “Cowboys” have at the EHF EURO 2016, to make it an historic achievement. With his best years ahead of him, Domagoj Duvnjak is the man with the answer.


TEXT: Nemanja Savic / ts
 
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