Martinovic: 'I trained my whole life for this moment'
6 January 2020. Ivan Martinovic is celebrating his 22nd birthday while in the Croatia pre-EHF EURO camp and is told by then coach Lino Cervar that he will be part of the 16 to start the event. It seems a dream scenario, not only for the fact the right back would make his debut at a major championship, but because Croatia were to open their campaign in Graz and then hopefully move on to Vienna for the main round — Martinovic’s birthplace.
But then that very evening at training, Martinovic broke his foot, meaning he missed the EHF EURO and being part of the silver medal-winning side.
“It was really tough for me. It could have been my first European championship with the men, at home for me, because I’m born in Vienna,” says Martinovic. “It was one of the saddest moments in my handball career. I hadn’t had that big kind of injury before. It was really tough.”
Skip forward to January 2022 and Martinovic has made his long-awaited EHF EURO debut, where he finished the preliminary round as Croatia’s top scorer and is the starting right back.
“For me it’s a dream come true. I trained my whole life for this moment — especially for the games in Szeged, where we had a lot of fans. It was an amazing and unforgettable moment for me that I will never forget. I’m really thankful that I did this and that I’m here. I really enjoy every moment, every second, that I’m here,” says Martinovic of his EHF EURO 2022 experience.
Croatia arrived at the main round in Budapest with two wins and one loss behind them — victories against Serbia and Ukraine, and the defeat at the hands of Olympic champions France.
In the opening main round game, Croatia lost 26:32 to Montenegro, who benefitted from the continued top form of their goalkeeper Nebojsa Simic. Simic made 14 saves at 40 per cent in the clash, leading Montenegro to the two points in the derby clash.
“We knew that this game will be tough. We had a really, really bad start. We played with no aggression in defence. Nobody helped each other in defence and then the goalkeeper has no chance to save some balls. And in the attack, when we made some good chances then Simic was there. He saved a lot of balls and took our self-confidence and then it’s hard to come back,” says Martinovic. Croatia aimed for a comeback in the second half, after they went to the break trailing 9:15.
“We talked about this — that we want to go back goal by goal. We started well but then again too many misses from us, too much stress. Montenegro played with so much discipline in attack. They scored a lot of goals from outside. We need to keep going now,” Martinovic adds.
Like other teams at the EHF EURO, the Covid-19 pandemic has made itself felt for Croatia, who have lost some players to positive test results. But Martinovic and his teammates are aware that is the uncontrollable situation and they must handle it.
“It’s hard to make a good chemistry in the team because we change a lot but it should not be an excuse. I think we’re not the only national team that has this problem. It’s hard but we need we need to live with that and take the best of it,” says Martinovic.
Keeping their heads high
Although Martinovic was born in Vienna and got his professional start at Fivers, it was an easy choice to chase the Croatia national team, which he was eligible for due to his parents’ background. Not only could Martinovic see his dreams of international success as more within reach with Croatia, he wanted to play alongside his idol, Domagoj Duvnjak. His siblings Marin and Kristina both chose Austria, and Marin was on court in the preliminary round at the EHF EURO 2022 as well.
MVP of the EHF EURO 2020 Duvnjak is one of the players missing for Croatia at the 2022 edition, after both a Covid-19 case and injury trouble. Watching the match against Montenegro, it is clear Duvnjak’s absence is felt, as he is such a leader for the team not only as a player but as a motivator.
“He’s one of the greatest in history. I think that the first three games we showed that we can play a good handball without him but I think in games like this he is missed the most,” says Martinovic, before commenting on how the broader squad, including those absent, are in touch daily.
“With all guys that are positive in corona we get, every day, messages from them and they showed us love. But today we didn’t show them our best game.”
Croatia now look ahead to their next clash, against current world champions Denmark. The team are under pressure to collect points in the race for a repeat appearance in the semi-finals.
“Now we will play against Denmark — one of the best teams, a favourite for the championship — with heads up for sure. We had now a really bad game, and now we need to focus on Denmark and what we should do better than today. And I hope, I think that against Denmark, we will have a lot of fans and this will push us a lot and we will play for sure better than today,” concludes Martinovic.