A meeting of old friends, but only pride at stake
As soon as it became obvious that his team had reached the main round of the EHF EURO, Velimir Petkovic was looking forward to one game in particular – Russia’s final match against Germany, coached by Alfred Gislason, on Tuesday.
“There are no coaches who have had more Bundesliga games on the bench than the two of us, we have a very friendly relationship," points out the former coach of the German clubs Wetzlar, Göppingen and Berlin. And without Alfred Gislason, “Petko” would not have gotten the job as the Russian national coach either.
The Russians and Gislason had agreed on a contract in February 2020, but the Icelander had not signed before he was snapped up by the German Handball Federation as successor to Christian Prokop. But that benefitted Bosnian-born Petkovic – who has had a German passport for many years – and he was announced Russian coach a few weeks later.
In the two years since then, Petkovic stopped the decline and built a team that is competitive again. If you disregard the veteran Daniil Shishkarev, it is a squad without big names, but they shine through one thing above all: physique.
"Many have asked me - Petko, where did you get all these big boys from? I'll just say: Russia is so big, you just have to look properly,” Petkovic says.
These “big boys” are like a wall in defence – and the defence was the key to the sensational 23:22 victory in the preliminary round against Norway. In the end, the EHF EURO 2000 champions won all preliminary round games for the first time ever.
But then they were hit by Covid: first Shishkarev in the preliminary round, then top scorer Sergei Mark Kosorotov tested positive.
"At the start of the main round we had to call up players who had never played together before," says Petkovic.
Russia were chanceless against Sweden, losing 23:29, then they were close to a draw against defending champions Spain. But Igor Soroka hammered the final penalty throw on the post and his side lost 25:26. That was followed by the 29:29 draw against Poland on Sunday, when Kosorotov had his comeback and equalised with the final buzzer.
Petkovic himself was given a red card in the match against Poland, after protesting decisions with the referees and delegates, but was cleared to lead Russia for their final main round game.
"Overall, I'm super happy with our performances, it's just a pity that we couldn't use key players in the main round, otherwise we could have done better," says Petkovic. "We played outstandingly in defence, the idea of the collective was perfectly implemented.”
Russia had already indicated their potential at the IHF Men’s World Championship 2021 in Egypt, and Petkovic has now moved closer to the team and has an apartment in Moscow after previously working a lot from a distance due to Covid.
Players like line player Aleksandr Ermakov or backcourt giant Dmitrii Santalov have developed very well, while Kosorotov is playing an outstanding season at Polish club Orlen Wisla Plock.
"I think things are developing well in Russia," adds Petkovic.
In Tuesday’s match he will meet many of the players he has trained, such as Paul Drux, Fabian Wiede (both Berlin) or Marcel Schiller (Göppingen). Petkovic won the EHF Cup with both clubs: Göppingen in 2011 and 2012, and Berlin in 2018. In-between, he also coached Russian side CSKA in the 2020/21 season of the EHF European League.
And on Tuesday, he will also face his old friend Gislason, his successor as EHF Cup winner (2019 with Kiel). Neither Russia nor Germany, after their 21:25 loss to Sweden on Sunday, have the chance to proceed to the semi-finals.
However, Petkovic says: “I am really looking forward to this match against Germany and my friend Alfred Gislason. We have a chance to win, it will be a great game.”