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1 month ago - 3/22/2019


I had always been intrigued as a kid about voyagers and adventurers and pioneers. The people who headed off into the vast unknown not knowing what lay out there. Heading away from the safety of a city or a tribe in search of something. Now in terms of the Spanish and Portuguese who set off in search of new worlds and new trade routes, it seems obvious enough nowadays that they might do that as empires were being built and trade was necessary.

Ships were more seaworthy and yet you think that only decades previous to this people thought if you hit the horizon, that you would fall off the edge of the world. You have to admire that sense of enterprise. Just as an aside, merchants would wager their entire fortune on these ships and trade, so when it returned laden with riches, years later, the phrase “His ship has come in” came about. We still use it today to speak about good fortune.

There must have been a screw loose

But go back further and think of the Polynesians or the Vikings and these guys were heading off into the unknown in wooden canoes and longships sometimes in search of new lands and a little pillage to boot. They must have been mad. There must have been a screw loose in there somewhere. I mean, of course we can think about all these events as exploration, but I always figured that there must be more to it than that.

I guess it's because travel doesn't come easy to me. I am not like some people who are bitten by the ‘wanderlust’ bug. What a great word if only for the compounding of wander with lust. It says it all. And then I read an article somewhere that maybe explained it all to me.

It was imprinted in our DNA that there is safety in numbers

Millions of years ago we lived in small groups or tribes, staying together for safety, staying close to the fire. It was imprinted in our DNA that there is safety in numbers, far from that sabre-toothed tiger that just wanted to eat us. But in doing so there was a danger of inbreeding, that of the gene pool within our tribe becoming too narrow. So in every tribe there was one of two of us whose DNA wiring was switched to travel, to break free, to get out to mix up the gene pool. Spread it out across the globe. 99% of us love the fire, 1% has wanderlust.

Now why on earth you may ask am I going on about such a thing. Well I'm heading to Croatia this weekend to that great handball club of Zagreb. And this club is the epitome of my little thesis in reverse. It's as if every one of them that plays there has the bug. The need to stretch their wings and spread the Croatian handball gene. Of course as much as in the early days of travel it's about commerce, but it's more than that. Plenty of great players there never got the urge although I'm sure there were better commercial offers.

I'm not a hoarder by nature, but I have kept all my cards and records from all the matches I have covered in the EHF Champions league and I came across my card from 2011 when I covered a game in Zagreb. The names on the list for Zagreb would frighten you when you think about how many have left and become successful elsewhere: Kopljar, Pesic, Strlek, Gojun, Brozovic, Stepancic, Ivic, etc. The list goes on.

These guys were all kids when I first saw them, all of them outgrowing the most successful handball club in Croatia. From that team, Tonci Valcic, his brother Josip and Zlatko Horvat stayed home. And don't tell me they weren't sought after, but they stayed close to the fire. Imagine the power of that club today had they been able to hold that team together. Each time I return, there is another new team and I wonder how many will go on to even bigger things, knowing that they’re hardwired to move on at some stage. If I can pun on the surnames of the Croatians “they have an itch they need to scratch.”

Zagreb are in essence the Ajax of the handball world

It's a testament to Zagreb that they are a building block for a lot of the top clubs in Europe. I always remember Wimpy from Popeye saying: “I’ll gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today.” This is indicative of so many clubs who want instant gratification and glory. Some of them no longer grace the handball scene. Zagreb to their credit live contrary to that statement. They will gladly wait until Tuesday to eat the burger. They cut their cloth to suit their measure. They survive and thrive knowing that glory may never be within their grasp.

Imagine the pride and courage needed to constantly strive to compete knowing that your best players will always be poached. Year after year to be a name in the pot of the Champions League, with a proud heritage and history, and know that you probably need a miracle to achieve. They are in essence the Ajax of the handball world, a club that has become a nursery to provide for the wider handball family. A famous Polish player and coach once told me: “You don’t win anything without a Croatian in your team.” And Zagreb is the first place they look.

Never bet against the underdog in a game like this

So when the other Balkan and extremely successful club, Vardar, arrive to play the game this weekend there should no other result than a Macedonian victory. Right? All the signs say yes. Zagreb just about made it into the Last 16 in what many perceive as an easier group to the one in which Vardar played. They also sit behind Vardar on the leader board of the SEHA league table. If we employ the American system of ‘bracketology’ then the outcome should be a foregone conclusion.

But this is MOTW. And one thing is never to bet against the underdog in a game like this.

Author: Tom Ó Brannagáin, ehfTV.com commentator