“If someone deserves this gold medal on Sunday, then it is Lino Cervar.”
After scoring the winners’ strike in the 80-minute semi-final thriller against Norway, Croatian line player Zeljko Musa wants to finish things off in Sunday’s final against Spain – not just for himself and his team, but also for his coach.
“Lino has won everything: Olympic Games and world championships, but still this European gold is missing. This is the last: we do it all for Lino, to gift him with the trophy. He did so much for Croatian handball and the country of Croatia,” Musa says.
In 2002, Cervar – nicknamed ‘Mago di Umago’ (the magician from Umag) – took over the Croatian national team for the first time. Within one year it seemed as though he had brought the Midas touch to the team.
In 2002, Croatia finished last at the EHF EURO in Sweden; one year later, the Croats won the world championship final against Germany. At the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, Cervar became a legend when he steered the Croats to the podium, again after beating Germany in the final.
Since then, Croatia have not won any gold medals – and even worse, the world and Olympic champions are still waiting for their first ever EHF EURO gold medal. Twice, in 2008 and in 2010, Cervar steered his side to the finals in Lillehammer and Vienna, but twice the Croats lost, first against Denmark, then against France.
In 2010, Cervar ended his first stint as Croatian national team coach and became coach of Macedonian side Metalurg Skopje. Later on, he coached the Macedonian national team. His successors for Croatia such as his former assistant Slavko Goluza or Zeljko Babic were quite successful, but never made it to another final.
Therefore, the Croatian Handball Federation decided to call Lino Cervar back for duty after the World Championship 2017, when Croatian first lost the semi-final against Norway and then the bronze final against Slovenia. They had a plan: Croatia was to host the EHF EURO in 2018, and they had one mission: winning gold.
But due to many injuries, including to star Domagoj Duvnjak, the hosts missed the semi-finals, finished fifth, and many thought Cervar might quit. But he stayed, with the dream of the 2020 Olympic Games.
“Definitely this year will be my last year. This is my last EHF EURO, and I hope that I can step back from my position as gold medallist in Tokyo,” Cervar says.
— EHF EURO (@EHFEURO) January 24, 2020
On Sunday, he could make history by becoming only the third men’s national team coach to win all three major titles after Vladimir Maximov (Russia) and Claude Onesta (France).
All in his team are crossing their fingers for the 69-year-old Cervar.
“I’ve known him since 2001, he was my coach in the national team and on club level. He always counts on head and heart, but with the clear focus on the head, as Lino is a highly intelligent coach with incredible tactical skills,” says Igor Vori, gold medallist in 2003 and 2004, and now Croatian team manager of the Croats.
“Lino is a perfectionist – and he is never satisfied. Even if you win, he says: ‘It was good, but…’ He absolute deserves to win the gold medal on Sunday. Everybody has learnt so much from him,” Vori adds.
Someone who could step into Cervar’s footprints is current assistant coach Hrvoje Horvat, who also coaches of RK Nexe. The former national team player and Beach Handball world and European champion praises his boss.
“Of course Lino is a great coach, a great personality, and it’s not easy to follow him. It will be also very hard to step up into his place because he put the level very, very high. It will be hard to go with these steps in the future,” Horvat says.
“I learned a lot of things. It’s years and years of experience. Lino is also a big innovator and you learn each day something from him. When you are a trainer, you have to be a good thief, you know,” he adds.
But what of Cervar’s own future?
“I will finish with the national team but I don’t know what to do,” he says. “Maybe I will be a pensioner, maybe I stay in handball. I have not thought that much. My thoughts are only on Spain, and how we can beat them.”