When Anna Vyakhireva and her team became Olympic champions in Rio in 2016, beating France in the final, a 15-year-old girl was sitting in front of her TV screen in Rostov, cheering for her idols and celebrating the first ever Olympic handball gold medal for the Russian women.
Some 28 months later, the same two sides duelled in the EHF EURO 2018 final in Paris, with Russia ultimately losing their third EURO final.
In the meantime, the girl from Rostov made her first impact in the world of handball. At the age of 17, Valeriia Maslova played her first DELO EHF Champions League match for her home club Rostov-Don.
In March 2018, Russia’s national coach Evgenii Trefilov nominated the tall right back for her first senior international match, still at the age of 17. In summer 2018, Maslova won the IHF Women’s Youth World Championship with the Russian U18 team and was also named as a member of the All-star Team. She also played at the IHF Women’s Junior World Championship that year, where Russia finished fourth.
In 2019, Maslova received another All-star Team nomination at the U19 EHF EURO and a ticket to the EHF ‘Respect Your Talent’ programme. She was also an EHF Champions League finalist with Rostov, the youngest player on the team.
“When I watched the Olympic final in Rio, those players like Anna Vyakhireva, Polina Kuznetsova, Irina Bliznova and all the others were my dream team, my role models. I never would have expected to be with them in the national team, now this dream has come true,” says Maslova, speaking after Russia’s 28:28 draw with France in the EHF EURO 2020 main round.
Prior to the final day of the main round, France and Russia are unbeaten, each with seven points. For the Russians, a draw with Denmark on Tuesday would be enough for them to progress.
Maslova grabbed her chance this summer to make an early step abroad, joining Buducnost.
“Many in Rostov gave me a negative prognosis for this step, my parents didn’t want to let me go. But I wanted to make this step. I want to combine playing handball with getting life experience abroad,” she explains.
At Buducnost she is playing alongside stars such as IHF World Players Andrea Lekic and Allison Pineau and European champions and domestic legends including Jovanka Radicevic and Majda Mehmedovic.
Now, at her first major senior competition with the Russian team, she expects a tough fight with Denmark.
“They play physically strong, we have to prepare intensively,” she notes.
In general, Maslova is quite satisfied with the EHF EURO so far, but adds: “We could have won against France.”
Maslova, who is both the youngest at 19 and the tallest at 187cm of the Russian team, won her spot due to the back injury sustained by Rio 2016 and EHF EURO 2018 MVP Anna Vyakhireva.
“I was in Montenegro when my phone rang. They told me to pack my bags and to come to the preparation. I was so, so happy and proud, that coach Ambros Martin counts on me, and now I want to pay back. Of course, I feel so sorry for Anna, but health is the most important thing, when you are a sports professional,” says Maslova.
As, besides Vyakhireva, her sister Kuznetsova, line player Anna Sen and top talent Elena Mikhaylichenko are missing due to injuries, many experts did not have that confidence in the Russian team prior to the tournament.
“But our huge advantage is the pool of top players, we can count on a big number of experienced players,” Maslova points out.
At the age of 16, she was coached by four-time world champion Trefilov, who she says was important for her development.
“He loves handball more than he loves his family or his health. He lives for handball like no one else. And though he kicks your ass during all training sessions, Trefilov would do everything for his players, help them wherever he can. He always says ‘you are my family’,” adds Maslova.
Trefilov stepped down as Russian coach in 2019 and former Rostov coach Ambros Martin is now at the helm. Last year, Russia were by far the best team at the World Championship, but won bronze after a poor period in the semi-final with the Netherlands cost them a place in the final.
“Ambros is a different kind of coach with a different approach,” Maslova says. “Trefilov is always focusing on the individual development and individual play, while for Ambros it is all about the team. But like Trefilov, Ambros is a fan, an expert and he already did a great job in Rostov. Every training session is a great lesson for us, as he changed our style.”
And under Martin they hope for the trophy Trefilov never won, the European championship.
“We do not want to talk about why we won all the other titles, but not this one. So, it is our goal to win it this year. We want to grab this change,” Maslova says.
As well as filling the empty space in their trophy cabinet, an EHF EURO title would be another boost for Russian handball.
“General interest has grown rapidly. When a player walks the streets in Rostov, she will be recognised. The development in Rostov and other top clubs compared with a huge number of live matches on TV and the internet have boosted women’s handball in Russia. Some decades ago, it was all about men’s handball, now it is about us. And a bigger interest produces more players and more top players,” Maslova concludes.