Valentina Blazevic still does not believe that this is all reality.
“We can’t recognise what is going on at the moment, we’re living our dream, until someone wakes us up,” she says.
The 26-year-old centre back, who plays for Romanian club Magura Cisnadie, and her teammates had exactly one hope when they arrived for the EHF EURO 2020 in Denmark.
“We did not want to finish in last position again, we wanted to win at least one match,” Blazevic says. Croatia had not qualified for the main round of a Women’s EHF EURO since 2010, and in 2016 and 2018 they finished in 16th place.
But in their struggle for a better result, head coach Nenad Sostaric’s team was hit hard – first goalkeeper Ivana Kapitanovic suffered a severe knee injury, then several players from national champions Podravka Vegeta tested positive for Covid-19 and could not play at the EHF EURO.
“If three weeks ago, in our preparation, someone told me we would make it to the semi-final, I would have told him ‘you’re completely crazy and have no idea of anything’,” Blazevic says.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Croatian team arrived from Kolding to their new red bubble team hotel in Herning for the final weekend of the EHF EURO and the semi-final against defending champions France on Friday evening.
“When we beat Hungary in our preliminary round opener, we were so, so, so happy, as finally we had made this victory we had eagerly wanted.
“Then we beat the world champions Netherlands, then we beat Serbia – and suddenly we had qualified for the main round with the optimum of points. This was incredible, we could not believe what was going on. Then we beat Romania – and were so close to the semi-final,” says Blazevic.
“This was the first time we stopped joking and laughing. We prepared really intensely for that match. But never at this tournament have we felt any pressure, we were always relaxed, in a good mood and with an incredible atmosphere in the team,” Blazevic adds.
Hearts on fire
Together with their top scorer Camila Micijevic, Blazevic is the DJ of the Croatian team, responsible for the music selection for motivation and partying.
“We play those classic Croatian arena songs from football and handball such as ‘Srce Vatreno’ [Heart on fire] and others, but now, we even hope that those bands want to record a song with us, not just the men’s football team or the men’s handball team,” Blazevic says.
Balkan music as motivation, an incredible team spirit, a goalkeeper with magic hands – all combined as the ingredients for one of the biggest surprises in women’s handball in recent years. In 1994, Croatia finished fifth, and have since ranked sixth twice, but always in the shadow of the more successful men. Blazevic thinks times are about to change.
“We created such a euphoria and interest at home, we received so much positive feedback from Croatia, they are all crazy about us, we want to pay them back in these hard times,” she says. The team has even been called “the light in the Corona dark” at home or the “Croatian Christmas stars”.
And no matter what the semi-final against France on Friday brings, Blazevic’s pride remains.
“These are our memories, this is our tournament, we currently make history in Croatian handball, we have directly qualified for the World Championship. We are pushing women’s handball at home. The number of girls playing handball at Croatia decreased in the last years, maybe this tournament will bring many more kids to the handball clubs. We do everything to make handball, not just women’s handball, more popular in Croatia,” she says.
Even Croatian football legend Luka Modric contacted the team and crossed fingers via social media.
“Unbelievable – a star like Modric is interested in us. Incredible, everything right now is simply incredible,” says Blazevic.
“We could never imagine to be something like stars for someone, we are just normal girls. Now we can feel a bit like Modric at a World Championship. But all of us stay who we are when it comes to handball, we do this ‘click’ and then we are one, as a team, standing together.”
But one thing Blazevic and her teammates currently dislike: their new nickname “Kaubojke” or “the cowgirls”, derived from the nickname of the men’s handball team, “Kauboji”.
“We have something better,” Blazevic reveals. “We are ‘kraljice šoka’.”
The name means “queens of shock”, but it also has a double meaning: “šoka” is the nickname of their coach Nenad Sostaric, so they are all “Sostaric’s queens”, knowing that a huge amount of the success belongs to the coach and the staff.
Blazevic wants it all now.
“I am so proud of this team, we have made history, we can even make more history, as now we want to make it to the final.”
In January the Croatian men reached the final after a dramatic semi-final over Norway with two extra times, going on to win silver. The “queens of shock” are hopeful their Cinderella story will also go all the way and achieve an equally glittering ending.