Domagoj Duvnjak: Croatia's humble handball hero

Domagoj Duvnjak is a Croatian national hero for his genius on the court, and his life off it, but his legacy stretches far beyond his country's borders.

10 min By Ken Browne
Domagoj Duvnjak #5 of Croatia reacts during the Main Group 1 match at the 26th IHF Men's World Championship between Brazil and Croatia at the Lanxess Arena on January 20th, 2019 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Jörg Schüler/Getty Images)

Domagoj Duvnjak is an ordinary guy who can do extraordinary things.

An everyday handball superstar.

For a country of just over 4 million people Croatia has produced an amazing list of global sports stars.

And on the streets of Zagreb and his hometown Davoko you'll hear Duvnjak's name in the same conversation as Luka Modric, TonyKukoc, Goran Ivanisevic, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Drazen Petrovic.

Comparisons with Croatian Olympic handball gold medallist Ivano Balic are as inevitable as those with contemporary handball giants like Denmark's Mikkel Hansen and France's Nikola Karabatic.

There is peak love for Duvnjak at the moment after the way he came so close to winning the 2020 European Championships for Croatia, and in Germany too after his club THW Kiel was proclaimed champions.

His virtuoso performances lit up TV screens across his home country in January 2020, and have become the stuff of local sporting lore, despite Croatia having to settle for silver at Euro 2020.

Domagoj Duvnjak  with his head in his hands after Croatia collect their silver medal at the EHF EURO 2020 on January 26, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images )
Domagoj Duvnjak  with his head in his hands after Croatia collect their silver medal at the EHF EURO 2020 on January 26, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images )
Duvnjak scored eight goals against Sander Sagosen's Norway to win the Euro semi-final, including a cliff-hanger penalty to keep his country alive and send the match to extra time.

He then netted five against Spain in the final which Croatia narrowly lost 22-20.

Duvnjak was Croatia's top scorer in both of those games, picking up the player of the match in the final, the tournament MVP and the EHF player of the month for January.

He became the only Croat, alongside Ivan Balic, to win European Championship MVP.

And what did he say afterwards?

“I would swap all those awards with the gold medal”- Duvnjak

They love him for being a superstar and not acting like one.

"Duvnjak is the heart and the leader of the team"

The European Handball Federation published this about Duvnjak's contribution to Euro 2020:

"The Croatian captain dragged the team to the first Euro final since 2010.

"He played several heroic matches during the tournament, the German Kiel player is most responsible for Croatia's entry into the Euro final, after scoring eight goals in the semifinals against Norway and scoring a decisive penalty for extra time."

"Duvnjak is the heart and leader of the Lino Cervar [Croatia's coach] team. He is an example to his teammates on the field with his approach, game and attitude. He played a key role in Croatia's success at the Euro."

After the loss in the final, thousands of Croatians packed Zagreb Square to welcome the 'Cowboys' home as heroes.

"We live for moments like this"

Their captain and MVP, Domagoj Duvnjak, received the same love as Luka Modric and the Croatian football team that lost to France in the 2018 football World Cup final.

Then he spoke:

"We were down and depressed, but when we see so many people in the square, we can only be proud. You're incredible! We were sad but we live for moments like this. This medal belongs to you!"

Family, loyalty, honesty, humility, those are the foundations of this handball hero's success.

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Domagoj Duvnjak Wife

The story of Duvnjak and his wife says it all.

When Duvnjak married his high-school sweetheart Lucija Žulj in October 2019, they didn't sell the rights to a gossip magazine, invite Lady Gaga, or splash their cash all over social media.

They just got married.

Secretly, privately, discretely.

"I have always been in love with Lucija," Duvnjak said after he announced their marriage publicly in late 2019.

They sat next to each other in school in the first grade and the rest came naturally.

"Before we started the relationship, we were friends and love came spontaneously. I have to admit that I was first attracted by her looks, but also by her kindness and honesty ."

It's this honesty that has won them the love and respect of a country – that, sensational talent and a tireless work ethic.

Duvnjak has his priorities straight, and it allows him to focus fully on his other great passion: handball.

"Family is the most important and must come first. After all, you have a family all your life, your career passes," he said.

Domagoj Duvnjak early life

This handball prodigy has played a starring role from a young age, but he's always had a strong supporting cast: Family.

Born in the small town of Davoko in eastern Croatia near the Serbian border, handball is in his genes.

His father was a P.E. teacher and coached the Dakovo handball club, while both his mother and sister were also handball coaches.

It was like growing up with his own personal technical team around the breakfast table.

Ally that kind of support and knowledge at home to outrageous raw talent, and a physical phenomenon, then you start to understand why Domagoj Duvnjak came so far so fast in the game.

Always taller and stronger than his peers growing up, Duvnjak would stretch to 1.92m (6'3) and 92 kilos (203 pounds).

His game advanced rapidly and he excels in both defence and attack, the type of high-energy defence-to-attack full-court player that many argue make him the best in the world, as comfortable playing in 5-1, 6-0, or 3-2-1 formations.

At 14 he was already playing for the U-18 national team under coach Irfan Smajlagic while dominating games and towering above his players hi own age.

Three years later in 2005 he was part of the team that won bronze at the Qatar U-19 Worlds.

And at the 2006 European U-18 Handball Championships Domagoj showed why he would become one of the best to ever play the game.

Tournament MVP, top scorer, midfielder of the tournament, most assists... He led Croatia to gold.

After that things moved fast.

There was no keeping his breakout talents secret, and at 16 he was already playing in Croatia's top league with hometown club RK Davoko.

Two years later he was the top scorer in the national league and Duvnjak was brought to the capital to play with RK Zagreb where he'd be instrumental in winning the Premier League and Croatian cup double three years straight from 2006-2009.

Beijing 2008 was his first taste of Olympic action but things didn't go to plan.

Despite a stacked team led by Athens 2004 star and gold medallist Ivano Balic ably assisted by talents like Blazenko Lackovic, Goran Sprem and Mirza Dzomba, the defending Olympic champs crashed out to France in the semi-finals.

The Nikola Karabatic-led French went on to take the gold medal, Croatia lost the bronze medal match to Spain.

But a 20-year-old Duvnjak gave another glimpse of what was to come in that match against Spain, scoring 7 - Croatia's top scorer.

Domagoj Duvnjak with his Croatian teammates, dejected after losing the the Beijing 2008 bronze medal match. (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)
Domagoj Duvnjak with his Croatian teammates, dejected after losing the the Beijing 2008 bronze medal match. (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)

Domagoj Duvnjak: The most expensive player ever

His club form and performances in Beijing convinced German club HSV Hamburg to make him the most expensive player in handball history.

In August 2009, Duvnjak signed a three-year contract with Hamburg worth €2.25 million.

His transfer fee was €1.1 million, making him – at 21 years of age – the most expensive handball player in history of the game.

He repaid Hamburg with his best season ever in 2013, winning Hamburg their first - and only - Champions League title, was voted Bundesliga player of the year and crowned it with the coveted IHF World Player of the Year.

Duvnjak scoring against Denmark in the 2013 World Championship semi final in Barcelona. Croatia finished the tournament 3rd. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Duvnjak scoring against Denmark in the 2013 World Championship semi final in Barcelona. Croatia finished the tournament 3rd. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

London 2012

But rewind one year to London 2012 and Duvnjak wins his first Olympic medal.

Now 24, a little older, wiser and stronger, he was once again a key player in Croatia's path to the podium scoring 32 goals in London, alongside the superb Ivan Cupic who netted 49, with Blazenko Lackovic, Manuel Strlek, and goalkeeper Mirko Alilovic all outstanding too.

Duvnjak took home bronze after France and his old foe Nikola Karabatic once again eliminated Croatia in the semi-final before going on to successfully defend their Olympic title.

You can watch the France v Croatia full match from London 2012 here:

Rio 2016

Defeating Hungary in the London 2012 bronze medal match 33-26, Duvnjak had his first taste of Olympic glory.

Ivan Cupic was interviewed afterwards and said:

“We feel like winners.”

“It would be nice to have a different medal but a medal at the Olympics is still a medal.”

The squad had a taste of Olympic success and wanted more, but four years later Rio 2016 had a bleak beginning for Duvnjak and Croatia.

They lost their opening game to a Qatar side led by Montenegran-born Zarko Markovic and their Olympics looked over before it had hardly begun.

But that defeat awoke the beast, and Croatia went on to beat Argentina, eventual gold medallists Denmark, arch-rivals France, and then hammered Tunisia to top their group.

The Danish match was particularly memorable for Duvnjak as he scored eight goals to put Mikkel Hansen's side to the sword.

But is seems like Croatia expended too much energy in those group feats and crashed out to a formidable Poland in the quarter-finals.

Polish assassin Karol Bielecki had the game of his life scoring 12 goals and there was nothing Duvnjak, Cupic, Stepancic and Strlek could do about it.

Denmark overcame Poland in the semi-final, Bielecki again led the Polish line but his 7 goals were outshone by Mikkel Hansen's 10, and Denmark won 29-28.

Duvnjak and Croatia had to watch an Olympic final between two teams that they had beaten in the group stage, Denmark taking home gold to end France's three-in-a-row dreams.

Tokyo 2020: Duvnjak to dominate?

Fast forward four years to 2020 and Duvnjak is as committed, loyal and faithful as ever.

MVP at Euro 2020 in January, disappointment in the final gave way to a sense of achievement.

"We won the silver, we did not lose gold. Before the start of the tournament, we were not the big favourites and we were not supposed to be in the final, but we made our way, only focussing from match to match," Duvnjak told EHF.

Looking forward he talks about how he dreams of winning the Champions League with his German club side THW Kiel, where he's played since 2014.

And now with Croatia, focus shifts to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Winning Euro 2020 would have given them a ticket to Tokyo, but now they have to play their way to Japan through a tough qualification tournament against France, Portugal and Tunisia.

But there is an extra motivation for Croatia and his name is Lino Cervar.

The legendary coach led his country to World champions in 2003 and Olympic champions in 2004. He was also at the helm for the silver medal victories at the 2008, 2010 and 2020 European Championships.

When EHF asked if the team were extra motivated to win gold for Cervar at Euro 2020 Duvnjak replied:

"Of course. Lino did so much for Croatian handball, for the nation, so we wanted to win gold for him.

"Now we hope to make it to the Olympic Games to grant him with a successful farewell there, but the way to the Olympic Games is anything but easy, facing France, Portugal and Tunisia in qualification."

Tokyo will be Cervar's final Olympics and the team hopes to see him off with a golden handshake.

Duvnjak himself will be 32 in Tokyo, and it may well be his Olympic swansong too, but as the 2020 Euros showed, he's still at the top of his game: more dominant, experienced and influential than ever.

With Olympic powerhouses France and Denmark crashing out in the group stages of Euro 2020, Tokyo looks set to be a thrilling, open competition.

A resurgent Spain and hungry young Norway are early contenders along with heavyweights Denmark and France who always bring their A-game when the Olympics begin.

But Croatia are aiming to win the sport's pinnacle prize too, in what could be the proudest moment of Domagoj Duvnjak's stellar career.

Don't be surprised if he does it, just don't expect him to boast about it.

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