MontenegroCoach: Bojana Popovic
Their 28:26 victory over neighbours Serbia in the 5/6 placement match at the 2019 IHF Women’s World Championship in Japan saw Montenegro achieve their highest-ever ranking in the competition.
The result ensured the gradual improvement following sixth place at Germany 2017 and eighth at Denmark 2015. Can 2021 continue that upward trend in the only championship they are yet to medal in?
Coach at the time, Per Johansson, told ihf.info that a “very talented core of the team” in Itana Grbic, Dijana Ujkic, Durdina Jaukovic, Ema Ramusovic, Tatjana Brnovic and Ljubica Nenezic were key, but needed “older” players for the right mix.
Two coaches later – following Kim Rasmussen and now Montenegro and Buducnost playing legend Bojana Popovic – those young players are still the core, although Jaukovic ruptured her ACL playing for Brest in September and will be out for six months. However, they are still led by the inspiration which is Montenegrin captain Jovanka Radicevic, part of the successful 2012 Montenegro squad who won silver at the Olympic Games London 2012 and gold at the Women’s EHF EURO 2012 – their best-ever results.
In October, her fellow wing and 2012 player Majda Mehmedovic announced her international retirement as the side continue to move on from those glory days which they have been unable to repeat. Andrea Klikovac also recently retired from international duty.
The semi-finals at the Women’s EHF EURO 2014 were their last top-four finish before the big disappointments of 11th place at the 2016 Olympic Games and 13th at the EHF EURO 2016, although a sixth-placed rank at both the 2017 IHF Women’s World Championship and Tokyo 2020, fifth at Japan 2019, eighth at the EURO 2020 and that top five spot at Japan 2019 show Montenegro could be on the rise again.
Montenegro are well-placed against their Group A opponents, most recently losing a tight match against France (23:24) but turning it around against Slovenia (26:25) at the EURO 2020 and Radicevic scoring 12 in the 33:22 demolition of Angola at Tokyo 2020.
To get to Spain, Montenegro beat Belarus home (29:23) and away (26:24) in their European play-off in April. They have also been participating in the EHF EURO CUP 2022, against their fellow co-hosts of the Women’s EHF EURO 2022, North Macedonia, Slovenia and, qualified-as-champions, Norway.
Two wins against North Macedonia in early October (31:30 at home, 29:21 away) allowed Popovic to experiment with younger players, try different tactics and give rest to older or injured players who were still involved with the squad. Games against the Norwegians and Slovenians will follow after Spain 2021.
"It will not be easy at all because the competition system is such that we have no right to make a mistake,” said Popovic about Montenegro’s Spain 2021 preliminary group.
“Already in the preliminary phase we have to be at the maximum level because the points are transferred, and then only two selections from the main round go to the elimination phase.
“We have to prepare in the best way, to be at the required level in every match, if we want a good result, we have to be against the strongest opponents.”
Montenegro’s preparations start on 22 November with games in Sweden on 26 and 28 November, before flying to Spain on 2 December.
Key players: Jovanka Radicevic (right wing), Jelena Despotovic (left back), Ema Ramusovic (line player), Itana Grbic (centre back), Milena Raicevic (back)
Qualification for Spain 2021: Qualification Europe Phase 2 – Winners versus Belarus
History in tournament: 1957-1990: part of Yugoslavia, 1993-2005: part of Serbia and Montenegro, 2011: 10th, 2013: 11th, 2015: 8th, 2017: 6th, 2019: 5th
Group at Spain 2021: Group A (France, Montenegro, Angola, Slovenia)