Popovic: ‘Focus on the game, not on what is around you’

INTERVIEW: Bojana Popovic about surprising coach changes, living in a bubble and what to expect from two “Balkan finals” on Tuesday

Bojana Popovic on the Montenegro bench at the EHF EURO 2020. Photo © Uros Hocevar / kolektiff

Montenegro began the EHF EURO with two defeats – and two completely different performances. Against France, they were close to victory, but lost 23:24. In round 2, Denmark ran over the EHF EURO 2012 champions 28:19, delivering Montenegro's worst-ever loss in the competition.

On Tuesday, Montenegro have a true Balkan final for the last spot in the main round against Slovenia, who are also are on zero points.

Montenegrin assistant coach Bojana Popovic has the experience of hundreds of crucial matches, mainly as a player, winning six EHF Champions League titles and the Olympic silver medal in 2012. After that, she took over different jobs on club level at Buducnost Podgorica and for the Montenegrin federation – and even had her comeback as a player at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where she was also the Montenegrin flag bearer.

Right before the start of the EHF EURO 2020, a handball avalanche hit Montenegrin capital Podgorica, when national team coach Per Johansson and Buducnost coach Dragan Adzic lost their jobs on the same day.

The 41-year-old Popovic stepped in to function both as the new head coach of “her” club, and as assistant to new Montenegrin national team coach, Danish born Kim Rasmussen.

ehf-euro.com: When you look back, did the tournament start as expected or are you disappointed?

Bojana Popovic: We are on zero points, but had a great match against France, mainly in defence. In the end we lost our energy, it was a more or less expected match from our side. Against Denmark, we played well only for 25 minutes. The Danes had more power and a wider bench, but we did not play that good in the end.

ehf-euro.com: Now you have a real final against Slovenia for the last ticket to the main round of your group.

Bojana Popovic: We know each other well, we will have a Balkan fight with them. We have to forget the first two games and play better, then we can win it. Slovenia have some strong and tall players, but we know what we have to prepare. It will be a tough and very special match.

ehf-euro.com: Ten days before the EHF EURO 2020 you were appointed new assistant coach of the national team and head coach of Buducnost. Did those changes surprise you, or were you involved in the decision?

Bojana Popovic: It was a surprise for everybody and for me too. Sometimes a change of coach happens quite quickly in handball. As I knew the Buducnost players and many others who had played for Buducnost before, I became the [Montenegro] assistant coach. So I am here to help Kim, our new coach.

For all, it was a difficult situation, but we are ready for it. We have not had a match for almost a year, and in March it really counts for us. For sure, we are here to win something. But our main goal is to use the EHF EURO to learn and to prepare for the Olympic qualification tournament in March.

ehf-euro.com: You have the Champions League trophy you won with Buducnost in 2012 in a special place in your living room. Is this your motivation and impetus for your job?

Bojana Popovic: This is why you do sport, you want to win trophies and titles. I know that with our new and young Buducnost team it will take some time until we can fight for this trophy again, but of course I am always out for titles. I was assistant coach of Dragan Adzic for seven years, so I know the club, the players and I am ready for this job. I’ll do everything to win this trophy again.

ehf-euro.com: What can we expect from Montenegro at the EURO?

Bojana Popovic: I really hope that we beat Slovenia and then have at least three more matches. We fight for this goal. As I said, we are here to learn something and to improve the team, mainly in terms of the Olympic qualifiation tournament.

ehf-euro.com: Looking at EHF EURO group C – did the Croatia and Serbia results surprise you?

Bojana Popovic: Croatia did two great jobs against Hungary and the Netherlands. For me, they are the biggest surprise of the tournament. Serbia played really well against the Netherlands, but then lost clearly against Hungary. So we will see an outstanding match and real fight between both of them.

ehf-euro.com: The circumstances of the EHF EURO are very special due to Covud-19. What are the main differences, in your opinion?

Bojana Popovic: Of course, the whole preparation was different, we did not have a test match, many players had long breaks due to infections or quarantine, mainly if they play for Champions League clubs. So many players could not prepare themselves in the optimal way, but they are professionals.

Now we are in this bubble situation, so it is a big difference. The organisers are doing everything to keep those bubbles free of Covid and keep us all healthy by all those tests and measures. So we really hope that we can finish the tournament without problems.  

ehf-euro.com: How important is mental strength in this regard, mainly being in a hotel for three weeks?

Bojana Popovic: The players are prepared for it, they know the rules, they are not allowed to leave the hotel, the protocol is strict and we follow those guidelines. But if you are a professional player, you have to focus on the game, not on what is around you. You can use all those circumstances as an excuse, if you want.

The only thing we really have to take care of is injuries. I do not want something like what happened to Andrea Lekic [SRB] to happen again, we really have to be aware of it.  

written by Björn Pazen / jh