From team captain to president
After their best EHF EURO result of sixth in 2018 in Croatia, the Czech Republic made it to the main round of the EHF EURO 2020. Since then, many things have changed, mainly due to Covid-19.
Czech Republic’s EHF EURO 2022 qualifiers in October needed to be postponed and the same happened for the matches scheduled in January, and then the Czech team was hit hard by a number of cases and had to withdraw from the World Championship 2021 in Egypt.
As a consequence, the federation parted ways with the coaches Daniel Kubes and Jan Filip and a new president of the federation needed to be elected. In the middle of March, it was a player who became the new president — and one who had headlined the EHF EURO 2018 campaign most, as the overall top scorer of the competition: Ondrej Zdrahala.
At the age of 37, he was supposed to steer the Czech team as their captain at the World Championship in January. Now, Zdrahala has the last weeks of his active career ahead, playing for Qatar-based side Al-Wakra.
“End of May, this chapter as a player will be closed, then I move to my president’s office in Prague,” Zdrahala told eurohandball.com.
Zdrahala celebrating victory with Czech Republic in the preliminary round at the EHF EURO 2020.
We all dream of playing at the EHF EURO 2022. We would have our matches in Bratislava, we have a great relationship with Slovak handball, and all of the fans would go there, if it will be allowed. This tournament would really be something special for us, as in the past, we were one team.
Some weeks ago, new interim national team coach Rastislav Trtik took over the team, and immediately had to play three EHF EURO 2022 qualification matches within one week, which saw a range of results: A victory against Faroe Islands and a draw and a defeat against Russia.
“Before this week, we might have been satisfied with those three points. But we could have tied at Russia, where we lost by only one goal, and we could have beaten them at home – then the situation would be much easier now,” says Zdrahala. “But some weeks ago, the Covid situation in the Czech Republic was much worse than it is now, and some players from Germany could not come to the matches. With all of them on board it might have been different.”
Next week, the Czechs (three points after three matches) have their last three qualifiers, including the crucial double-header against Ukraine (five points after four matches and sitting one point below Russia). If Czech Republic want to secure second position in their group to be certain to go through to the EHF EURO 2022, they have to leave Ukraine behind.
After the Covid-19 shock in January, Czech Republic have formed two teams for the treble-header, including the rematch in the Faroe Islands. The groups of players are in different hotels, all in a red bubble, so a new player can step in in case something happens. “Rastislav Trtik has nominated many more players than usual to be on the safe side,” says Zdrahala.
So, in case of emergency, will the new president play for the national team again next week? “Our season [in Qatar] continues regularly, so unfortunately, I cannot help the team in those crucial matches. Of course, the schedule is extremely tough with three matches from Wednesday to Sunday, including two away games. But we try to rotate as much as we can.”
Zdrahala in action at the EHF EURO 2018, where he finished as top scorer, with 56 goals.
The first match will be on Wednesday in Ukraine, where the Czechs travel by charter. From Ukraine and via Denmark, the team travel to the Faroe Islands, where they play on Friday and then prepare for the final clash with Ukraine on Sunday.
“It will be challenging, but of course, we all dream of playing at the EHF EURO 2022. We would have our matches in Bratislava, we have a great relationship with Slovak handball, and all of the fans would go there, if it will be allowed. This tournament would really be something special for us, as in the past, we were one team,” says Zdrahala.
“Of course, I will wear the Czech jersey in Bratislava, but on the tribune as a fan and president — not as a player. The Czech national team is a matter of the heart for me, and I really will try to help and support.”
In his original plan, Zdrahala wanted to run for federation president in 2023, but the election was already in March 2021. The former captain of the national team left two candidates behind in the election. “I had only six weeks to prepare for the congress, and I was in Qatar, which did not make it easier. Finally, I was even happy that it went so fast. I hope that I can bring the federation ahead.”
One question is whether the president and the federation will extend the short-term contract with Rastislav Trtik, which will end after the qualifiers. “First, we have to see whether we qualify for the EHF EURO, then we sit together again. Trtik is definitely the best coach for this team at the moment — he is experienced, emotional and he is a motivator.”