This is me: Indira Kastratovic
She is an EHF Champions League Women winner in 2002, a two-time EHF Champions League runner-up, a three-time EHF FINAL4 participant and a bronze medallist as a head coach of Vardar, also voted the best athlete of North Macedonia in 1997, 1999 and 2002, and one of the best right back players of her time; not forgetting she was part of North Macedonia's biggest sports moments in history. Read all that, it is fair to say Indira Kastratovic left her mark in the world of handball and was awarded by the International Olympic Committee for the improvement of sports in North Macedonia while also receiving the National Sports Award of the Republic of North Macedonia. Today, a Sporting Director with Vardar and having a passion for the sport we all love; a proud mother and a wife, Indira Kastratovic speaks about her life in the new This is me series.
THIS IS ME: INDIRA KASTRATOVIC
Optimistic. With a smile and strong belief, anything is possible when you give your all. That's how I see myself. Today, I am grateful that handball directed my life because at the beginning I never dreamed that it would bring me here.
I started playing handball pretty late - at the age of 16. In Yugoslavia, sport in school was at a high level and I played basketball, volleyball, handball and athletics. In high school, my teacher told me you are talented at handball and I should focus on that. He was persistent. A coach from a local club saw me and together, they convinced my parents to join club Mira Cikota, in my hometown Prijedor.
Being left-handed had an influence too but I was always brave and was giving my best. My main motto is if you believe in yourself, then everything is possible. Soon I fell in love with handball.
I moved from Mira Cikota to Halas Jozef Ada very soon after. There was a strong tournament in Yugoslavia called Brotherhood and Unity (Bratstvo i jedinstvo) and I played there with the junior national team of Bosnia and Herzegovina. People from Ada were there also and Bato Đurović was persistent in bringing me to Ada. He was, in a way, the person who opened new opportunities for me. I was at the right place at the right time. He even came to my house to persuade my parents to let me go to Ada. I can say, that was the real start of my professional career.
I never thought I would be a professional handball player. I remember when I arrived in Ada in 1988, the national team was preparing for the Olympic Games in Seoul. We stayed in the same complex and for me, that was like a dream. I was watching them on TV, enjoying every move on the court and I could not believe they were talking to me at that moment.
My time in Ada had a deep impact on me, not only in terms of handball. During my time there I met my husband Zoran. Ada is a small town in Vojvodina, Serbia and had both women's and men's clubs. He was playing for the club Potisje. As it was a small town, the players hung out together a lot, we shared the same training facilities. That's how our story started and lasts to this day.
Zoran was my biggest supporter throughout my whole career. I think I might not achieve what I have achieved if it wasn't for him. Every athlete has ups and downs, times when you think you cannot do what you want: optimistic and pessimistic periods. He was there for me. When I was at the top, he was the one holding me to the ground. Always saying there is a life after handball and he was pushing me forward. Even when I played well and we won the match, he would say it was good but… His 'but' was my additional motive. He was and is my “Achilles' heel”.
I am thankful for his support since the day we met. In 1994, after our wedding, he said to me: I think your career will develop more and I will be by your side. We will walk this path together. Today he is an excellent coach and I support him in each decision.
There were interesting times when he was my head coach too, in Jugoinspekt Novi Sad and the national team of North Macedonia. I always had to perform better, I was the first to hear critics from him. Today, I know that was good for me and the team. Zoran always knew how to get the best out of me. No matter if we were husband and wife, we were professionals and knew how to separate professionalism and privacy.
Our life is handball. There were times when our daughter Sara would come out of her room and say: ''Handball again?''. There were weekends we had a handball match on TV, laptop and tablets, and we were commenting and analysing.
That's why people were always surprised that our daughter was not a handball player. However, I believe that our absence, the sacrifice and my severe knee injury left an impact on her. And she chose her path in life, which I am very proud of.
Apart from Ada, I used to play for Jugoinspekt Novi Sad under dual registration. Later I joined them and in 1992 I signed for Vozdovac Beograd. I have spent beautiful years there and met a lot of new friends. Then, in 1994 I made a decision that shaped my future. After playing for Vozdovac, due to not being able to play international matches, many of us started to seeking new clubs as we all wanted to play stronger matches.
Everything started when Vozdovac played a tournament in Skopje organised by Vardar. People from Kometal (then Gjorche Petrov) approached me and offered to join the club. At the start, I did not want to, to be honest. As they wanted me in the team, Zoran said why not. I said OK, I will sign for two years and we will see what happens. 28 years later I am still in Skopje. I think that says it all. North Macedonia became our home and our family.
The club had big ambitions for EHF Champions League Women, Trifun Kostovski was the person financing the whole project, you are close to home, and people have a similar mentality, all that sounded good to me. The new club is a real challenge for an athlete and I love that.
The first big step in the Champions League for Kometal Skopje was 1999/2000 season when we reached finals against Hypo Niederösterreich. We played very well at home, winning 22:20, however, in the away match we were defeated 32:23. We knew we can be better and raise that trophy. We were devastated to hear we will not be able to fight for it in the upcoming season. Due to a fan entering the court in Skopje and his actions, we were banned from the Champions League. It was difficult for all of us.
Mister Kostovski asked me what are your plans, as many thought, we will leave the club. Many players went on loan to different European cubs, and I told him that whatever his decision is, I will do it. He gave me the idea of taking a year off. Zoran and I wanted to become parents and in the end, I gave birth to Sara in June 2001.
Remember what I said at the beginning? With a smile and strong belief, anything is possible when you give your all. That was me after giving birth.
Our Sara was not even a year old when my teammates and I lifted the EHF Champions League trophy. I gave birth by c-section and a lot of people were saying I will not be able to get back to the court soon because of it. I am from Bosnia, we are stubborn people and I gave my all to prove them wrong. This was one more occasion on which my husband helped me a lot, taking care of Sara while I had two training sessions per day. And it was all worth it.
We were one team, breathing as one. I was scared that one year of not playing in Europe will affect our play when we get back. However, it turned out we came back even stronger, we had a strong desire, will and stubbornness.
There are so many matches I still do not remember. I had to rewatch them to remember what was happening on the court. Euphoria was in the air. The club, Skopje, and the whole country were living for those matches.
In that historic 2001/02 season, FTC Herz Budapest was our opponent in the final. The first match was played in Hungary and we lost by only two goals (27:25). We knew we played well and we can do even better in the second match.
The rematch was set for 19 May 2002, a day we all will remember. People were on the streets a few hours before the match, our arena Kale was full, and you could really feel the love of the fans.
North Macedonia is a special country, a country that loves sport and athletes and values success. It is a feeling I wish every athlete could experience at least once. Zoran used to tell me that I even do not know what my name is when I enter the court. You could feel the atmosphere and blast of energy, you felt like you were flying.
I still remember driving to the Kale Arena. The whole city was calm before the storm, we really felt like something is about to erupt in the city. We entered the court holding hands overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Just thinking about the feelings of that day, still brings such powerful emotions in me.
The same emotions we relived with the national team. I took citizenship in 1997 and was part of North Macedonia's biggest sporting success. However, my senior national team career started back in time when I played in Novi Sad as I got an invitation from Yugoslavia national team. I played 100 matches for Yugoslavia and to this day, my biggest regret is not going to the Olympic Games in 1992. That is the only thing left that I have not achieved as a player.
I was only 21 at the time and I tried to learn as much from them, absorb knowledge and tricks on the court. I really believe we would had great success at those Olympic Games. We were preparing for three months, we were living for it and a few days before travel, they told us all team sports from Yugoslavia are under sanctions and now are banned from competition.
At the time, I didn't realise the impact it had especially on older, experienced players who were in their prime. It came as a shock to us. 30 years later, I'm still sad that we didn't go
The national team's joy was completely restored in North Macedonia. I was already in Skopje for three years and I gained citizenship ahead of the IHF Women's World Championship 1997 in Germany. We went as outsiders, not believing we can do much. Even we thought we will come home after the group phase. It was the country's first major tournament after independence in any sport.
We played well and we were a surprise to everyone at the tournament. When the time came to play against Denmark, the Olympic champions, we were sitting in the locker room and said to each other let's just play as we know so we don't embarrass ourselves and not lose by too many goals. When the match started, we were so pumped that we had an early lead, Denmark did not know what was happening and we won 25:23.
The outcome of the match was that every person in the country was living for our matches, for our success. My husband called me and asked do we know that even the parliament does not work when we play. We could not believe it. We finished in seventh place, which is to this day, the biggest success for women's handball. I was the top scorer of the tournament with 71 goals scored but I did not receive any award. Only our Ambassador in Germany came and gave me 71 roses. It was very important to me and I still remember it.
We had a huge welcome in the city and the love for the women's national team was living through the next EHF EURO 1998 and 2000, and World Championship in 1999. We had a continuity of good results which were combined with the success of Kometal Skopje.
My career as a player came to an end in 2006 with a beautiful farewell match in Skopje. I spent a short period in Spain, at Gran Canaria, but there were some problems with visas for my family and I could not live without them. I was not giving my best on the court and I decided to return home after three months. At that moment I knew that I had to end a career and I didn't feel bad because I knew that it is always good to end a career when you are at the top to be remembered fondly.
In 2003 we opened our handball academy, an academy that lasted for ten years. Today, many of the national team players started playing handball in our academy.
It took some time for me to stop thinking as a player and start to think as a coach. Being a coach, you have a huge responsibility. It is an important role, especially if you are working with children. I think every coach has an influence on a person. For me, there were Bata Đurović, Nišević, Milatović, Saša Panov, my husband and Jan Pytlick with whom I worked as a coach, and many more.
My final destination was Vardar, a club where I still work as a Sporting Director. At first, I was director of the youth academy. Sergej Samsonenko asked me to be a head coach in a transition period, a year before stars like Jovanka Radicevic, Andrea Lekic, Allison Pineau and Amandine Leynaud came. Vardar had to win first place in the country to even be able to qualify for Europe's highest-level competition.
I like good challenges and I was enjoying every moment on the court. After a few weeks, he came to me and said, I will not seek a new head coach, you will remain in this position. I was surprised and honoured.
As a head coach, I led the team to three EHF FINAL4s, at all three finishing in third place before I left the helm in 2016. Each tournament had something special but I still regret my first season in 2013/14 when we were defeated by ZRK Buducnost after additional time in the semi-finals by 22:20.
I think not a lot of people believed that Vardar can achieve good results in the Women’s EHF Champions League. We were a new team, with new players and from the start, we were a good team. I still believe we were ready to take that trophy.
Vardar lived through beautiful memories and success up until 2018. Since then, I and President Gordana Naceva have taken over it. Vardar still lives and gives opportunities to young talented players. I am happy that I am still part of the club and its story.
Handball, especially women's handball, needs a strategy for the future to bring back those successful days. We have so many talented players, but we don't have the funds to keep them in the club, in the country. I hope that things will change in the future and that we can invest more in clubs, coaches and players.
No matter what will happen, I know I will always be there for handball. Together with my husband Zoran.