The Czech Republic had an incredible EHF EURO 2018. Their sixth-place finish was their highest since 1996, and centre back Ondrej Zdrahala scored 56 goals. The tally made him the tournament’s top scorer, with two astonishing games against Hungary and Croatia where he netted 14 and 13 goals respectively.
While Zdrahala is focused on helping the Czech Republic to another solid run in 2020, the man who scored his 400th goal in Czech colours against Austria on Thursday has revealed that this might be his final appearance at a European Championship.
“Before this competition I was injured and I was out for a long time, but I came back and I wanted to see if I can play 60 minutes of handball. Currently I have no problems but I think I would like to play one more year before moving into coaching,” Zdrahala tells ehf-euro.com.
“I have plans in my head after my career and I would like to be a trainer. I like to work with people, especially on the physiological side of the game because 90 per cent of the sport is your head, it plays a big role.
“Being a good trainer is not just about handball knowledge. It’s about the physiological aspect of 16 guys, every one different, and making one homogenous team,” Zdrahala adds.
“For me, the physiological side is interesting. Of course tactics are very, very important, but you cannot expect your players to play well on the playground if they don’t feel good.”
After their 29:32 defeat to Austria, the Czechs will need all of Zdrahala’s experience if they are to make it through to the main round.
Yet the Wisla Plock playmaker is hoping the team can repeat their feat of 2018 when they also lost their opening game of the tournament before progressing to the main round. Along the way they beat Denmark twice, in the preliminary and main rounds.
“I remember everything and we remember everything,” Zdrahala says. “We did not just lose the first match – we lost by 17 goals to Spain.
“We went into that tournament with no expectations and after that first result we knew nobody would give us a chance. We said to each other that the pressure was off, but we didn’t expect Denmark to play to the level they did and we took advantage, scoring a lot of goals.
“We then had a chance to reach the semi-final, which would have been an incredible achievement for us and even so we felt that we were better than Croatia in the fifth-place match.”
Getting over the nerves
If the Czech Republic are to extend their stay in Vienna then they will need to beat a North Macedonia side that needed a last-gasp winner from Kiril Lazarov to beat Ukraine.
And Zdrahala believes the team – whose average age is just 26 without him and fellow veterans Martin Galia and Pavel Horak – can learn a lot from Thursday’s defeat to Austria when they step out on the Wiener Stadthalle floor on Sunday (16:00 CET, live on ehfTV.com).
“In the first match a number of our players were nervous – there was a lot of pressure on our young players and we have a young team – well except me and few others,” he laughs.
“It will be very hard, we know that we need to win. Against Austria, I don’t want to say they were more lucky, because they played the last 10 minutes better, but we also scored 29 times and were good in attack. However, we conceded 32 and this is far too much and we can’t afford to do this against the Macedonians.”
As one of the senior heads in the Czech dressing room, Zdrahala appreciates the importance of protecting and encouraging a squad that contains a number of young faces, including 22-year-old Stepan Zeman and Dieudonne Mubenzem, 23, who both found the target twice against Austria.
But while Zdrahala explains that the Czech camp now helps new members of the squad integrate he admitted that has not always been the case.
“In the past it was much harder for young players to come into the team,” he says. “Now we make an atmosphere for every player – even if they are 19 years old playing their first game – one which makes them feel like an important member of our team.
“It’s important for them to feel welcome so they can bring their best game to the playground and play at their best. As I said, the sport is 90 per cent in the head. At this level, everyone has the same physical level but it’s the head which makes the big difference between the top players and the average players,” Zdrahala continues.
“You have to feel comfortable, and if you feel comfortable and have the support of your teammates and trainers, you can reach your level.”
After that opening loss in Vienna on Friday, it is fair to say a win over North Macedonia would ease the pressure and the nerves inside the Czech squad – and make them all feel a little more comfortable at this championship.