This is me: Ivano Balic
Handball Mozart. Handball Jordan. Magician. Greatest ever to play handball. These are just some of the nicknames Ivano Balic got throughout his astonishing career. Olympic and world champion, winner of eight medals with Croatia, winner of 13 trophies, IHF World Player of the Year, four times MVP at major handball events, three times All-star Team member at the EHF EURO, Olympic Games and the Spanish league, and a charismatic player who left his footprint in handball for decades to come. In this new episode of our This is me series, Ivano Balic talks about his path, love for handball and important moments of his career.
THIS IS ME: Ivano Balic
My parents Zarko and Stjepanka were handball players. You can already tell my path could not lead anywhere else than to sports. They both were playing in Italy, therefore I spent my childhood there, near the handball court.
It was a normal thing for me I tried myself in the sport too. However, to everyone’s surprise, handball was not my first choice. When we returned to Split, my hometown, like every kid, I first tried to play football in Hajduk. Following that, I tried water polo and when I was 13, I joined the local basketball club.
Why basketball? I think I got motivation after playing with other kids on the outside court in school. I realised I was not that good and I wanted to improve. However, Jugoplastika had a major role. The team with Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc were one of the greatest inspirations for everyone, especially kids in Split. Jugoplastika were a dream team, winning three consecutive European titles. With time it became my love and I enjoyed going to training. Basketball still is one of my favourite sports but with time, back then, the love started slowly fading away.
A few years later, when I was around 16, I started playing handball parallel to basketball. However, I soon realized handball is where I fit the most. It was forgotten love that was already planted by my parents and my childhood near the court.
Everything started when I went with my friend to watch a match between Split and Metkovic, who were playing in the second division at the time. There, I ran into Mate Bokan, who was my father’s teammate. Mate was a coach in Split and he told me to come to the training, to try handball. As my friend was also a handball player I agreed to come.
And the rest is history.
Interestingly, I did not tell my parents right away that I started to play handball. They found out later. Still, they were and still are my biggest supporters. Throughout my whole career, they never tried to give me advice and neither they were trying to influence me. They let me be who I am, sometimes stubborn but righteous and honest. According to everyone, I got the best from both of them when it comes to the style of play. It turned out to be a great mix.
I don’t know what made me the player I was. I think, other than my parents and surroundings, my biggest influence was watching all kinds of different sports, playing basketball, working on training to improve. I think you can learn something useful from almost every sport, take some element that could help you in handball, try that in training and see what is possible and what is not. But some of my signature moves came spontaneously.
My character, that stubbornness followed me throughout my career. Some people maybe didn’t like it but I think it was proved in the end it is good to have it in sport. Never give up! We were raised with that saying. And that is the source of stubbornness. To believe you can achieve anything, to win even when no one believes and with time, it gives back.
I started to play handball in Split; everyone knows that but not a lot of people know I had my first registration as a player in Italy. My father made a deal with Cassano Magnago a few months after I started with handball, and I went there to play the finals of their youth league in June. I was awarded as the best player and with that, I returned to Split.
Split (Brodomerkur) those years were a very good team. Two years in a row they were runners-up and I was happy I got a chance to be with the first team. I didn't play much but I gained experience. After those two years, many players left and with few new ones, the team consisted mostly of the local guys from Split, including me.
That is when I started to play better and better, slowly building my style of play. And where I played my first European matches in EHF Cup.
In my time in Split, I have to say, Sándor Bajusz helped me a lot. During my whole career, I liked to talk a lot with older players. I knew they could help me and give advice and Bajusz took one for the team then. Cooperation between two players on the court, I think that at the time, we brought to perfection. We understood each other just by looking at each other. That is one of the brightest memories I have of Split.
After Split came Metkovic. In Metkovic I upgraded what I knew and in the 2000/01 season, I got the chance to play in the EHF Champions League for the first time. We had a strong team, trained a lot and in a way, my time in Metkovic prepared me for what came later in my career. I have beautiful memories from Metkovic before I moved abroad for the first time.
I stayed in Metkovic for one more season after we won the World Championship in 2003. At the time, I could not find a club that would satisfy my needs in terms of development. The two-week tournament in Portugal showed me I am good but I wanted to be absolutely sure in my next choice of club.
My biggest wish at the time was to join Portland San Antonio in Pamplona. I found out that both centre back players were leaving and that Jackson Richardson was staying. I did everything, calling everyone I knew, just to get a chance to sign for them. Thank God, I made it.
During my handball maturing I had only one role model – Jackson Richardson. Today, we are great friends. Can you imagine that? I think it is really rare you have a role model you admire, watch him play and one day life gives you an opportunity to play with him and to become friends. For me, that is one of the most beautiful things handball can give you: Friends.
The first time moving from your country and your friends is not easy. You have to meet new friends, accept the culture and new surroundings. There is a lot of work to adapt so that you can be calm and satisfied, completely dedicated to something you love, handball.
When you join the right team, you start to play with ease because with time you start to understand each other very well. It took some time for me to adapt there but when I finally did it, it was amazing.
In my first year there I was a year of my learning and a realization I might not have everything right. When I was in Split and Metkovic, you were playing with guys that shared the same view, with players you knew for years, and it was a lot easier. Therefore, in Pamplona, I started to watch matches, analyzing my teammates. I realized it was easier for me to adjust to them than vice versa. Spaniards play a different style of handball, have different approaches to training, are more relaxed and have a different understanding of the sport.
Pamplona helped me enormously to develop in many different ways. And it is a place where the number 34 on my back started. When I started to play handball, I got number 3. In the national team, it was number 4 as 3 was taken. When I first moved to Pamplona, both of those numbers were taken and that’s when I decided to take 34. And it remained my number until the end of my club career.
Portland San Antonio gave me four beautiful years of playing top matches in Spain and the EHF Champions League. Unfortunately, I never won a European trophy. The closest I came to it was with Portland.
In 2004/05 we reached the finals after finishing first in the group and along the way eliminating Ademar León, Barcelona and Veszprém. In the finals? Ciudad Real with the top squad, including Croats Petar Metlicic and Mirza Dzomba, my national team teammates, and one guy who decided the match – Arpad Sterbik.
The only thing I remember from that match is a wall at Ciudad Real’s goal. Sterbik was incredible and if you ask me, he is one of the best, if not the best goalkeeper of all time. In every crucial match for Ciudad Real, he was the man of the match. And he repeated that so many times throughout his career. Both teams had great players, but he was the one making the difference. I mean, we scored only 19 goals at home against them.
Not winning the EHF Champions League is not a regret for me. Of course, it would be nice to have won it, but to be honest, today I think about it when someone mentions it. However, when I still actively played, of course, it was on my mind. Especially during the last few years of my career, as I knew the end would come soon.
Now, when I look back, it just was not meant to be. When I think about everything else I did during my career, where I played, with whom I played, how I played, what trophies and medals I won or where I was able to share my knowledge, I think that is the true success of my career. And I am proud of everything I did.
Still, I received many individual awards during my career. At that moment, they have some meaning but they don't mean anything later if you haven’t done something big with your teammates. Yes, they are confirmation you are doing something right but they don't mean you have to stop working. You always have to work harder and aim high. All of my individual awards together are not worth the same as my first gold medal with Croatia.
Croatia had huge success at the beginning of the 1990s but as 2000 approached, things changed. I went to my first major event, the EHF EURO 2002, when Croatia finished last.
Being an Olympian and winning Olympic gold is something special but I will always remember gold from Portugal the most. I will keep saying that. Many would say that 2002 was an unhappy tournament for us but if you look at it through all results that followed, all those beautiful stories, I would say it was a good thing for us.
We went to Portugal as underdogs, no one expected anything from us. We knew we were good but even we could not imagine what would happen next. Everything fell into the place there and that gold medal bolstered every success later in all of our lives.
Do I think we could have won more medals? Definitely yes. Albeit, now when I look back, everything turned out like it was supposed to turn out.
I know that I gave my maximum, the last drop of sweat, not only for the national team but also for every club where I played. I really think all I have done in my career and everything my generation gave to handball, following the steps of those that came before us, is an amazing success. Again, with the national team, the European trophy is the only one missing from the collection. It was just not meant to be.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games I returned to Croatia, to Zagreb. Zagreb had an idea of building a great team that could reach the finals. For me, it was a normal thing to return to your country to try to do great things with a Croatian club and maybe win the Champions League.
We reached an agreement very soon and it was all fun and games until I got injured only a month after the matches started. I hurt my back and even my whole career and normal life were under question.
Zagreb had a great team, and we almost reached the desired goal. In my four years there we played two Last 16 rounds and two quarter-finals. In both quarter-final matches, Zagreb lost to Kiel after having a draw at home only to lose in Germany, the first time by four (27:31) and the second time by six (27:33).
Again, after the new Olympics, this time in London 2012, I changed club. Zagreb did not prolong my contract as they went in different directions after those four years, and I wanted to get a new trial outside of Croatia again. I returned to Spain, it was my wish. I would always choose Spain as I really liked how they approach handball, training and their sports mentality.
I got a call from Talant Dujshebaev to join him at Atlético Madrid and we soon agreed. That was the last year of that club. In the first seven days of preparation, Sterbik left for Barca, José Hombrados got injured and we were left without a goalkeeper. That is something that marked that season in the club. It was the beginning of the end for a great club like Atlético Madrid.
At the end of that season, I already was thinking about retirement. I wasn't sure if I should do it or not but at the same time people from HSG Wetzlar were persistent and in the end, I gave in and moved to Germany.
I did not know much about the team but when I arrived there, I was positively shocked. We had a lot of young players. You know, when you reach that point in your career when you can’t play at the high level, fighting for trophies, then you should choose a place where you can be a teacher, to pass your knowledge to younger players and to help them in any way. And I really liked that in Wetzlar, where I stayed for two years.
The last six months in Wetzlar, I realised it was time to call it a day. My body could not keep up with the rhythm and training. Retirement wasn’t hard for me and I already knew what I wanted to do in life after it. I know if I wanted to enjoy life and be able to play with my kids without feeling any pain in my body, I needed to quit.
And you know, family gives you stability both on and off the court. Their happiness is an additional factor in each of your steps throughout your career. They are your guiding star and today I could not be more proud of my sons Dino and Vigo, and daughter Nola.
As my retirement was approaching, I got a deal with the Croatian Handball Federation to work with young generations in Croatia. Working with children is something that I always wanted to do, and I always wanted to be a mentor, like an older brother to those young players. Because I know how hard it was for me when I was younger and what it meant to me when older players were there for me.
I always believed working with children is a more important job than being a coach when they all grow up. To give them help, to instill the right foundations and values. For me it is great. If only one kid out of 100 of them takes your advice and listens to you, you already succeeded.
Today, it is easier to influence younger generations and information can be delivered much sooner. But I think we lived sport more in the past. I have a feeling that younger generations are not interested in the past of their sport, about people who set the path for what handball is today, and not just in handball. Doesn’t history inspire you to become part of that 20 years from now? I knew I wanted that.
That is why I also founded a handball school in Split with Petar Metlicic, later worked on many handball camps, took the job of coordinator of younger age categories in the federation, Respect Your Talent ambassador etc. I also came back to the national team in a role of assistant coach, first to Zeljko Babic, now to head coach Hrvoje Horvat.
I try to help everyone as much as I can and I love doing this job.
My main message to all young players is, to give your maximum, and give yourself to what you’re doing. Not just in handball but also in life. Don’t take education for granted and take on a path that is good for your progress.
If I could go back in time and meet my younger self I would have only one thing to say to him: You did good!