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EHF Champions League

This is me: Momir Ilic

The newest instalment of the This is Me series sees us return to the bench to hear from a coach — but a coach who himself raised multiple trophies as a player: Serbian sharpshooter now Veszprém coach Momir Ilic. 

I started playing handball, we can say, by accident. Like every kid I was playing football at first, some boxing, and later I joined my older brother who was playing handball. As I come from a small city where handball is the number one sport, it was not a surprise I tried it too. With time it started to grow on me more and my brother, who started first, quit. It wasn’t love at first sight — at the time I didn’t know it was going to become part of my life.

It was a very good system back then, as handball was integrated with schools. So, my school PE teacher was also my handball coach and we played handball a lot. The first time I really felt I started to love handball was at my first tournament.

My handball path started in Arandjelovac and I always look to it with a smile. My parents had a good influence on me, even though they are not connected to sport in any way. I come from a family of workers and their persistence through life helped build my character and I transferred that to the court, even though they didn’t look at handball as something serious or a job for the future.

Coaches had a good influence on me while growing up, but the biggest influence on me was Nikola Jevremovic later in my career, while I was playing in Subotica. He helped me a lot with advice, his knowledge. He was important for me.

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My first step towards my international career was Gorenje Velenje. After three clubs in Serbia, going step by step — let’s say by the book — Velenje was a good choice. I played EHF Champions League, other European competitions. It was a good club for me for development.

After two years in Velenje it was my time to take on one of the best leagues in the world: the Bundesliga. I have to say that I’m thankful to my agent Saša Bratić and late coach Velimir Kljaić who made it happen. Joining Gummersbach at the time was stepping out of my comfort zone. That’s what made me stronger and better. I realised I need to work harder and give my best to keep up with the tough matches in Germany.

In my last year with Gummersbach we won the EHF Cup with coach Sead Hasanefendic. We were so happy to win a European trophy — the club’s first one after many, many years. I was happy too, but I was eager to win more. I wanted to win the EHF Champions League — that was my dream. That’s why I chose to join Kiel.

My dream came true already in the first year. It was the first edition of the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne and we went all the way. That match against Barcelona in 2010 will forever be in my heart. But 2012 beat everything. Kiel were superior that season. We won the Super Globe, the Super Cup, the German Cup, finished Bundesliga without a point lost in 34 amazing wins, and the cherry on top was the second Champions League title.

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To have such a great success, you have to live through failure. The year before we didn’t win the Bundesliga and we wanted more. That 2011/12 season started in the Réunion with Daniel Narcisse. We took our families there — the whole club. We expected to have an easy summer hangout, but Alfred Gislason had different thoughts. Instead of enjoying at the beach, we were training for hours on the sand, exercising. Gislason was serious from the moment we met at the airport until the last match. For a year he didn’t show his emotions. He put us under pressure and we had only one goal — to win everything.

We had tough group opponents in the Champions League, but we became a true team. We were all hungry for those trophies. To succeed you have to be a team — all individuals supporting each other. There is nothing more important than that. 16 different people, egos and characters all working towards the same goal.

I remember a situation where I had to throw a penalty shot at the EHF FINAL4. Filip Jicha and I were playing in the same position — in a way he was my competition. But at that moment, he was my biggest supporter, and at the time, it gave me additional strength. Team really means everything and gives additional wind in the wings. We all sat down a couple of years later and it was like nothing changed. We still had that same team spirit. That is what we all have to strive for in handball: team spirit.

We had that in the Serbia national team also and the silver medal from that amazing EHF EURO 2012 is proof. I spent 11 years wearing the national team jersey and I’m proud of every moment but playing in front of your fans in a packed arena is special. Years prior to the Men’s EHF EURO 2012, former Federation president Velimir Marjanović was saying to us: “Our project is Belgrade.” We were preparing for that. We were growing as a team throughout many matches and we had a medal in focus.

To be part of the team that achieved that goal is indescribable — for us, for the city, for the country. Serbia was living handball those years. And it was very important for the country at the time. Year later, the women’s national team took a medal in Belgrade too.

Winning medals, raising trophies — it’s something every player dreams of and you always want more. Having won all with Kiel, again, I felt I wanted some new change. There is not a secret I wanted to go to Barca. Two times there was a chance, but it didn’t happen. Not everything turns the way you want it. When I look back now, it turned out very good for me as I ended up in Veszprém. And the rest is history. Veszprém remained my home even after I finished my professional career.

Veszprém was a new beginning, a new goal with many great players. Veszprém had never played at the EHF FINAL4 and again, I accomplished that with the team in the first year — and we succeeded three more years in a row after that. We still miss that trophy. Something we in Hungary are all waiting for, and I really hope I will see it.

We played many matches on the journey to that, but we all remember that 2016 final against Kielce. The last 15 minutes of the match, we were in the lead by nine. It looked like we finally had it. Three minutes before the end, Kielce levelled. And we lost it after overtime. It was really disappointing. We lost something we already felt like we had. It was really hard to come back after that.

That’s why, for me, it’s very important to have my family as support. That my wife and my son are near me. And I want to be there for them. I look at my son, who is six now. He started to have more and more interest in handball. He watches my videos, asks a lot of questions. My wife Maja was there for me throughout all. To have someone who understands you, who is there for you in your highs and your lows, when you have a bad day and a good day — for me, it’s really important. That’s why with every decision I make, I always have them in mind.

Just like I have in my mind advice I got from a friend after the 2016 Champions League final after the defeat by Kielce: “As a player, try to forget it as soon as possible. As a coach, remember it very well.” And I did.

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I always knew I wanted to be coach when the time came and everything was leading towards that. In 2015 I said my first goodbye — with the national team. Four years later I ended my career as a player and started a new path. They might seem like hard decisions but I made every decision decisively and without hesitation. I’m proud of that. I think both decisions were right at the right moment.

I first started to coach the young team in Veszprém and was an assistant coach to David Davis in the first team. I was giving my best to transfer my experience and knowledge and had a clear vision what I wanted to teach young players, and that is the game itself. Young players need to enjoy the game and play, just like I did.

I have only started my path as a coach. It will be a year now since I took over Veszprém and I still learn. I talk a lot with other coaches — coaches like Sead Hasanefendic, Noka Serdarusic, Xavi Pasucal, Manolo Cadenas. I learned from Davis too. He was my coach; later I became his assistant and finally took over the team after him. With each new experience, I’m growing as a coach. Each decision forms me.

When I became a coach, I finally understood my coaches from the past and their actions. ‘Momo player’ and ‘Momo coach’ are very different. As a coach I try to understand my players and to use the best of them. I think that Momo coach would not allow Momo the player to do some some things I did, but I would find a place for him in my team too.

The difference between the two is the best description for one of my hardest periods. Taking over the team of players I used to share the locker room with was really stressful for me for the first few months. I had a hard time sleeping before everything fell to its own place. It took some time to adjust, for both me and my former teammates.

When I took over in the summer of 2021, we put down a three-year plan of what we want to achieve as a club. And for this season, we wanted to take the title in Hungary and pass through the group phase of the Champions League.

A year later, I can only be proud of my team. We won the SEHA League and Hungarian Cup, we are playing finals of the Hungarian championship, and we are back in Cologne. As a rookie coach I had a baptism of fire. PSG, Kielce and Barça were my first tasks but it made me stronger and better.

My vision as a coach is to play fast handball, to help my players make good decision in split seconds and progress, and I to progress with them through all challenges and changes in our sport. My new handball path has only just started.

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