MontenegroCoach: Bojana Popovic
A silver at their first-ever Olympic Games – London 2012 – resulted in a national celebration in the tiny European nation of Montenegro, home to just over 620,000 people and then, a few months later, they defeated their Olympic final opponents Norway in the Women’s EHF EURO gold-medal match to spark even wilder scenes.
Since then, however, try as they might, the podium has been a distant place on the European, world and Olympic stage for the Montenegrin women.
Montenegro’s spot at Tokyo 2020 was eventually secured through an Olympic Qualification Tournament on home soil, but it was a nervy affair in a competition which has been good for them historically, never losing a game in the two previous editions, resulting in two qualifications.
In March 2021, they dispatched Norway in their opening game 28:23 in the behind-closed-door arena, but full of passion and atmosphere, generated by the players themselves. However, they sat back against Romania in their second and final game, knowing that even a loss would see them through. And in the end, it was nervy as they did lose, 25:28, but scraped through after coming close to a mathematical possibility of going out.
Following the match, Montenegro coach Kim Rasmussen described the loss as a “beautiful mess” but told ihf.info that he would not take him being a coach at his first-ever Olympic Games for granted – and that was to prove to be true.
And less than five months after taking over ‘The Lionesses’ in late 2020, he did not see his temporary contract renewed, with London 2012 silver medallist and Rasmussen’s assistant Bojana Popovic officially announced as the new coach in March.
The former captain will be hoping for a better Olympic return than last time out, when she came back from retirement for Rio 2016. It was a complete disaster for her side as they went on to lose all five of their group games – including a 25:27 loss against Angola – and only avoided last place thanks to Argentina having a worse record.
However, Japan has been good for Montenegro in recent years, with their highest-ever World Championship ranking of fifth place gained under another coach – Per Johannsson – at the 2019 IHF Women’s World Championship in Kumamoto.
Despite the coaching upheaval in recent years, Popovic knows her team well and, crucially, the players know her well, too, having been involved with the national set-up for many years, playing with some of them and in recent years, coaching many of them at the famous Montenegrin club side Buducnost.
She had chosen 19 players to compete for the squad of 15 at Tokyo when their preparation period started on 19 June. Household names include 2020/21 DELO EHF Champions League All-star Team member left wing Majda Mehmedovic, one of the most vocal leaders and captains in world handball – right wing Jovanka Radicevic – plus centre back Milena Raicevic and goalkeeper Marina Rajcic, who missed the qualification tournament after a break due to childbirth.
24-year-old left back Djurdjina Jaukovic is one to watch, her 63 goals for 200/21 DELO EHF Champions League runners-up Brest Bretagne evidence of her striking ability, while fellow left back Jelena Despotovic adds more world class to the Montenegrins and will be hoping for a successful summer ahead of her imminent move to Hungarian powerhouse Győri Audi ETO KC.
“There are no easy opponents at the Olympic Games, all national teams are of high quality,” said Radicevic ahead of Tokyo 2020. “The opponents are very demanding, but the most important thing is to be healthy and prepare in the best possible way.
“Everything is possible in Tokyo,” she added. “I do not want to promise something in advance, but we have to go step by step, [and] we will see what it will be enough for.”
Key players: Djurdjina Jaukovic (left back), Jelena Despotovic (left back), Jovanka Radicevic (right wing), Majda Mehmedovic (left wing), Ema Ramusovic (line player)
Qualification for Tokyo 2020: Tokyo Handball Qualification 2020 Tournament 3 – 1st place
History in Olympic Games: 2012: 2nd, 2016: 11th
Group at Tokyo 2020: Group A (Angola, Republic of Korea, Norway, Montenegro, Netherlands, Japan)