Velimir Petkovic: "It’s easier for us, than for the women’s national team — we are approximately at the same level with Belarus!"

10 March 2023
A conversation with the head coach of the national team of Russia the day before the matches with Belarus, which were held 11 and 12 March in Minsk, continued far beyond the allocated hour. For your convenience we divided it into two parts. Today is the first half, tomorrow will be the ending.   
 — … I’ve got about 150 hours of handball here, — Velimir Petkovic starts the conversation with Handballfast, taking a zippered bag from his desk on the base in Novogorsk and removing three discs from it. — The best exercises, which I have been collecting within 20 years on different coaching seminars all over the world, are kept on these discs. These are old exercises, but why not using them, if they were good, having modified them a bit and added something modern?
It’s Tuesday, half past six in the evening, the workout of the Russian national team has just finished. Dinner and rest are next on the schedule, and the Russian team will go to the court in Minsk this weekend to fight with the national team of Belarus. 
In the beginning of January the same opponents met in Moscow twice, the team of Russia won both times. Ahead of the return visit to a neighboring country Petkovic says, that this short training session is focused on defense on 5-1 scheme and counter-attacking game. He adds, that one of his main principles in the work is that each training should be interesting.
 — Do you succeed in it?
 — I have never held two identical trainings in my career, I always add something new. Now I want to implement 5-1 defense, but I prepare it by using different exercises. It’s now 40 years since I’ve been a coach, each workout is literally written on the paper. Valya (an assistant Valentin Buzmakov — Handballfast) also has complete documentation of all the trainings for the last two years. 
I want him to grow as a coach. When I started working in Russia, I told the HFR general director Lev Voronin, that I need a young Russian specialist on the position of assistant, who will study and take my place, when I leave. Valya works hard, he has a great desire to progress in the profession, and each workout from October 2020 is archived.
I will also pass on these discs to Lyudmila Bodniyeva. We often talk on the phone, I deeply respect her, we plan to meet after the team returns from Minsk.
 — You’ve learned a lot from other coaches, but you also taught others many things, in particular, at coaching seminars.
 — Yes, though not so often. When I came to Germany in the early nineties, I had a problem. I started training in the second German league, there was a war in Yugoslavia at that time. And in 1998 the Bundesliga team HSG Wetzlar invited me. And the president of the club told me: "I don’t know, who are you, but you have to hold a trial workout!" What a trial workout, I won the IHF Cup in 1991 (Yugoslavian RK Borac in the finals beat CSKA Moscow on the sum of two meetings — Handballfast)!
At that moment a well-known women’s coach Jurgen Gerlach gets up and answers the president: "You have no idea, who is in front of you. This man performed at seminar to local coaches in France!" And he told the truth, I taught in France somewhere around 1988 or 1989, then I was 32-33 years.           
 — You must be quite popular among the audience with your charisma, experience and knowledge.
 — Story of my life: in 2012 then-president of the Handball Federation of Serbia Bozidar Jurkovic invited me to the seminar in Kragujevac. There is a problem with coaches in Serbia, they are not eager to study, 20-30 people come to a seminar, maximum 50…
I accepted the invitation, and in a couple of days Jurkovic called me and said, that 250 coaches came to the seminar during two days! Both elderly and young colleagues came, I told everyone to address me whenever they need help. I’ve got a mountain of specialized literature in Berlin from all over the world. My office is full of books, and I’m always ready to send my colleagues, what they are searching for. I want to share my knowledge, I absorbed a lot from others. I had good teachers, great coaches and people who gave me everything.
 — Could you single out anyone?
 — Pero Janjic was my mentor in RK Borac, now he lives in Zagreb. He is the beast coach for me, though for some personal reasons he finished training early. Once he told me: "Each trainer has his own secret. He will tell you everything up to a certain point, but will not reveal the secret itself. And you ask me, I will tell you". 
He is 78 years, we meet in Zagreb every year during two-three days, talk about handball. And once he said: "What has changed in handball? Everything remains the same, I could train now — the court is still 40 by 20 meters, the gate is 3 by 2!" And I disagreed with him, replied that it was the only thing, that hadn’t changed, the rest is different. Those of us, who are older, do not always want to admit it, but it’s true!       
 — Who else is an interesting interlocutor among coaches?
 — I spent all nights, talking about handball with Lino Cervar and Vlado Stenzel. Vlado is is already 88, problems defeated him, the German state took everything away because of some taxes, I helped him in that situation. And he came to visit me, we are sitting and talking, it gets boring, he keeps repeating himself, it’s hard to follow the story, but suddenly something comes into his mind at 2 a.m, what you won’t find in any book, and his narrative just flows... Psychology! 
Actually, when I was a young coach, I thought, that the main point in the profession is to prepare and hold a good training. Now it’s only 30% of success, the rest is psychology.  
The Germans have a word einstellung, which means an attitude to the matter, an intention, that is in demand. Everything was fine with the players of the Russian national team until the one of recent training sessions. They came to the base, but clearly didn’t care much for working. I interrupted the workout immediately, gathered them with me and said: "Everything we are doing now, we do for the future and on the prospect. Indeed, we are suspended from the tournaments, but we don’t know, when the IHF and the EHF says: "You are playing again from next month!" We shouldn’t be at zero at this point!" And I don’t understand the coaches, who are against these training sessions. 
 — Are you going to teach this summer?
 — I’m planning to, though the slots are not the most convenient. The seminars will be held in June-July, and I would like to get some rest. I received three invitations from Serbia and one from Banja Luka (the biggest city of Republika Srpska, one of two entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina — Handballfast) to the seminar, arranged 26-28 June by my native RK Borac. We were planning a trip on these days, but I changed the date: I couldn’t refuse my home team. 
 — After control matches with Belarus in January you went to the World Cup. What are your impressions of the tournament?
 — I will tell you the same I told on the Sky channel that week before the match between Fuchse Berlin and MT Melsungen. The handball, which young coaches advocate now, is not my handball, but this is my job, so I have to adapt to the changes. Of course, the game could’t remain unchanged for 30 years, but I was constantly adjusting to novelties. And I preserved the basis of Yugoslavian school and continued to develop as a coach.   
 — What are the main differences between the two eras?
 — For instance, there is no defense now. In my understanding, handball is attack and defense. And, for instance, SC Magdeburg played with THW Kiel in this season in Bundesliga, scoring a lot of goals (THW Kiel won in away match — 34:33 — Handballfast), but there was not a single attack 6 by 6 during 60 minutes, only counterattacks and rapid centre. I remember a match a few years ago, which ended with THW Kiel winning by 54:34…
The same situation was at the World Cup: each team carried out 60 attacks within 60 minutes, flurry of goals! We must adapt... When I headed the national team of Russia, I also demanded to play in fast handball. I remember Vladimir Maksimov saying, that we shouldn’t just run. I agree, it’s not enough, but it’s possible to play fast, controlling the pace, rather than walking on the court and spending 10 seconds to return from attack to defense.
With high speeds in the background, the defending teams do not have time to stand in the defense, and young coaches don’t deal with this matter. During training I teach the players how to neutralize the opponent’s high-speed game, counter-attacks and fast centre. Due to such preparation we didn’t allow the Norwegian goal machine to score us more than 22 balls in the European Championship 2022  and we won.
 — What is good in modern handball?
 — It’s a matter of taste — if you like multiplicity of throws, if you are attracted by high-speed handball, then it’s an advantage for you as a viewer. But I see many people, who has no idea what’s going on the court. When I watch Bundesliga matches from the stands, I see supporters shrugging their shoulders, because they don’t understand the decisions of arbitrators, in particular.
Rapid centre combination creates the greatest confusion, the central circle diameter was increased, and precisely during the match between Fuchse Berlin and MT Melsungen the arbitrator interrupted the game several times due to allegedly incorrect ball input from the circle. Let’s abolish this rule entirely and attack immediately, like in basketball, after another goal. Otherwise, this issue will remain within judicial interpretation, splitting the game!
 — What else did you point out in the World Cup?
 — There are not so many goal scorers in today’s handball, throwing from the back line. Those were Anpilogov, Kudinov, Rastvortsev, Tuchkin in the past, top-class players… Even such a master, as Mikkel Hansen is not in the top any more: he was the best in the world 3-4 years ago, and now he hardly scores goals.
Handball has changed, the play is often held in 10-11 meters from the gate, where you have to play one-to-one. But now there is no back-line player in the national team of Russia, who could do it as good, as Sergei Mark Kosorotov and Aleksander Shkurinskiy. Unfortunately, both of them are absent in the national team for different reasons now, I’m looking forward to their return!
It has become the world trend, everyone is playing Spanish defense with an output of 10-11 meters, so,  the goal scorers became extinct, soon they will completely disappear, only infants will remain (laughing)! Naturally, I demand from the players to play one against one in training, but when they do it, mainly they are just moving to the side without a real trick.        
At the same time Icelanders Magnusson, Kristiansson, Palmarsson are great masters of such play. It’s tomorrow’s handball. I suppose, it would be useful to arrange a coaching seminar in Russia and deal only with this issue.  
 — Constant practice with strong rivals is one of the key factors of keeping fit. Is it possible to save the readiness of the national team at a high level with long intervals and rear sparrings?   
 — It’s rather difficult. Last December Bahrainis invited us for 6-7 days. Their national team was preparing for the World Cup, and we had another Super League tour. We couldn’t move it and go to Bahrain, and it’s a pity.  In the current situation we have to seek to go abroad and play. A training and a match are not the same. And when we had matches with Belarus in January, lots of people asked: "What is it for?" And the difference is visible with the unaided eye.         
During the training someone doesn’t want to give 100%, someone doesn’t attack. Each player saw his weaknesses, while playing against Belarusians. If you want to win, you have to do your best. And if you don’t exercise at maximum, how could you be ready to the matches?   
In my opinion, we took a big step forward at the European Cup 2022, many coaches and executives were excited about our play. Russia played phenomenally at times. We were leading 4 goals in the 45th minute against Spain, lost one ball after the missed penalty. We ceded by one ball to Germany, though we played out a draw and possessed the ball to throw a winning ball. We beat Norway. We defeated Slovenia at the World Cup 2021...       
It means, we can achieve success, but we have to gather more frequently, work harder and hold sparring with strong opponents… 
 — When going to the World Cup 2023, you said that during the trip you are going to communicate with colleagues concerning sparring holding. How successful were these negotiations?
 — I talked to colleagues from Serbia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Qatar, Iran, Bahrain and Tunisia. All of them wanted to play with us and highly appreciate our team. But it’s not always possible to turn desire into reality at the moment. In fact, March-April are already reserved for European Championship 2024 qualification, but we have offers from Asian and African countries.  
 — Did you agree about something particular?
 — There are preliminary agreements, but the HFR officials will inform about them, as soon as all the formalities will be completed.
I agree with Lyudmila Bodniyeva: we’ll take a step back anyway. But the men’s national team is in somewhat better condition in comparison with the women’s one. It’s easier for us, because we are somewhere on the same level with Belarus, while women have no permanent peer competitor…
Photo: the HFR press   
Tournaments: Olympic games (men)
Authors: Bojan Schoc
© 2024 Handball fast. All rights reserved.