While it may only have been Game 1 for the Cowboys, their World Championship is essentially already over after today’s ugly 31-22 loss to Egypt. Croatia will still advance to the second group stage by beating minnows USA and Morocco in the next few days, but because results in handball carry over from the first group stage, the only likely path to the quarterfinals for Croatia is beating back-to-back World Champs Denmark with a goal difference superior to their loss to Egypt.
I hate to break it to you, but it’s just not going to happen, so it’s already time to start asking the question, what has happened to the Croatian Cowboys we used to know?
We all know that no Croatian team can ever top the Vatreni in terms of our enthusiasm and interest, but I’ve always had a soft spot for handball and it’s really not that long-ago Croatia were a world-power in the sport.
From 2004 to 2020, Croatia made at least the semifinals of the Euros 8 out of 9 times (outlier being 2018 when they finished 5th); obviously there is another question of how you make eight semifinals and never lift the trophy, but that’s for another day.
At the same time, from 2003 to 2019, Croatia never finished below 6th place in the World Championship in nine tournaments, including winning the title in 2003, along with picking up a gold medal in 2004 and a bronze medal in 2012 at the Olympics.
Losing to Egypt isn’t as embarrassing as it may sound at first glance – as they are without a doubt the top non-European side in the world, they are the #1 seed in the group, and they pushed eventual champions Denmark all the way in the 2021 World Championship, only losing in penalties. However, losing by 9 goals, is unacceptable as it gives them no way back due to goal difference.
Croatia’s loss to Egypt has continued a series of embarrassing results for the Cowboys in losing to countries that are still nowhere near world-class in handball. In the past 3 years, Croatia have lost to Montenegro, Argentina (and now Egypt) and have tied Holland and Japan during tournament play, while missing out on qualifying altogether for the 2020 Olympics.
While Croatian soccer just hit another high last month in Qatar, Croatian handball (and basketball) can serve as a warning for what happens when a golden generation (or multiple golden generations) isn’t adequately replaced. Croatian handball is obviously going through a painful transition period – yes there are some key players injured and not playing right now, but Croatian legends Domagoj Duvnjak (MVP of Euro 2020) and Ivan Čupić are 34 and 36 respectively and can’t be expected to pull a Luka Modrić and carry the team to glory. Unfortunately, Croatian handball looks to be missing a solid generation to replace their prior legends, with only Luka Cindrić, who is already 29, able to be considered truly world-class, although there are high hopes for Marin Šipić, the leading scorer against Egypt, to hit that category.
I’m by no means an expert on handball, but we likely have already entered a dark period for the Cowboys for at least the next few years if the talent well has truly dried up for now. The HNS need only to take a look next door to their handball colleagues to serve as a warning to see what happens when the next generation either isn’t properly integrated or just doesn’t appear. Thanks to Modrić and Perišić’s unexpected longevity, Croatia has really been able to bridge what could have been a painful transition period because there was and still is a big hole in the following generation, which really only produced Brozović and Oršić. While the future looks bright for the Vatreni on the backs of what is hopefully another very strong generation led by Gvardiol, Sučić and Šutalo, success can never be taken for granted.
I hope I am proven wrong, but it may be awhile before we hear Croatian handball making some noise again, which could get even more uncomfortable given that Croatia will host (with Denmark and Norway) the 2025 World Championships.
What do you think, is Croatia’s performance against Egypt just a temporary blip, or have we seen the last of the Cowboys on the grand stage?