Dragan Djukic, the newly-installed national handball team coach, met with eight senior players from his squad about six weeks ago. What united the players is that all are over 26 years old, and do not qualify for the remuneration offered by the Elite Sports Unit for turning up for such practices.
The Serbian coach, who led the British team to the London Olympics and came to Israel to raise local standards to a professional level, described his sporting vision to the octet. In order to implement his system, he explained, they will have to appear regularly for three morning practices every week, and he expects a significant rise in the number of days devoted to training camps in Israel and abroad.
The players, who throughout their careers followed other vocations while they played, knew this means a new reality in which suddenly handball changes from a semi-professional pastime into a genuine first obligation. They all wondered aloud to the coach and Israel Handball Association heads whether it will be possible to compensate them for appearing for training and the loss of income. Association president Doron Simchi told them he will see whether he can increase the team's financial support from the Olympic Committee of Israel, but promised nothing.
So it was that without receiving a specific promise, seven of them agreed to follow the Serb's orders. The only one to refuse was Ofer Luzon, the powerful line player who by day functions as a construction engineer on the new soccer stadium being built in Haifa. The 27-year-old newlywed knew that he could not give the national team his total dedication.
"You can make money from handball, but my future is in structural engineering," explains Luzon. "I can't throw what I've done in the wastebasket. The other players did something wonderful - they took a risk, still haven't resigned from their jobs and began to forfeit work days in order to get to morning practices."
Unlike Luzon, Yoav Neeman was one of those ready to forfeit other activities for handball. "We were prepared to take a step back in life so as to take a step forward in handball," explains the player, who until recently was the national team captain. "We knew we have a chance to improve and wanted to be like the young players on the squad. We hoped to stay on the national team to the end, and not to go half-way."
Two weeks ago Simchi announced to the players that he could not support hem financially any further. In other words, if they wanted to devote themselves to the national team and leave their jobs, they would have to do so without financial compensation. Under these circumstances, Neeman, Gal Avraham and Amir Langlib joined Luzon and left the squad.
"We may have surprised the handball association," Neeman says in retrospect about the senior players' willingness to turn up for practices. "From the outset they never really took us seriously, and treated our generation as one that would immediately leave the team - but our love of the game is too great for that."
Djukic has finalized his work plan for the next four years, in an attempt to take the team to the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. "Until now the team would gather a week before an assignment, but this coach demands work year-round," Simchi explains. "I understand the older players who have already settled down and it's hard for them to be part of this switchover. They want to be professionals, but at the moment we cannot make this happen. I would have preferred to see all of them on the team, but we can't have everything and we'll try to make the best of what we have."
The coach now has at his disposal the remaining senior players, youth team players and others aged under 26. He will have to concoct the right recipe to take the national team far.
"After the coming campaign, Djukic will be able to pick the players he wants for this mission," says Simchi. "This squad will become more professional in the next two years if it is to achieve anything. The young players can spread out their academic studies, train in the mornings with the national team and in the evenings with their club teams. I hope this is the best way to take the sport forward and in the future they will have no problems earning a living from handball. We will hope for budgetary changes so as to offer the senior players a way back."
Serbia comes to the Mideast
Then, of course, there is the issue of Djukic himself. Again a foreign coach - this time from one of the world's leading producers of handball players - turning up in the Middle East to try to change the way people think about the sport.
"My grandfather built many houses - he was an engineer and constructed factories, and all my life I have done something similar - I've built teams," explains the Serb. "In Britain I took over the national team in 2009, at a level less than zero, and built a team from people who had never played handball. We built the sport up there, and that was a tremendous challenge. Nowadays, some 60,000 children have started playing handball in Britain."
Now he is trying to lay a cornerstone for the sport in this country. "Of course, this is a new experience for me, since we're talking about a different mentality, a different tradition and a certain way of relating to sport," he emphasizes. "But in the end handball remains what it is. In order to reach the Olympic level we will need at least 20 games a year, because you don't get international experience from practices.
"I don't like to use terms like 'revolution' but I do want to put things in place," he says.. "If we want to be compared with the best teams, we'll have to behave like them. We'll have to be more professional, more focused and understand the game better. Everyone's thinking has to change, because one person cannot do it alone. I'm ready for the challenge. Sometimes it takes more time, money and nerves to teach young players, but that way we can change the future."
The situation at present, however, has a long way to go. Tomorrow, when Djukic and the Israeli national team open their European Championships qualifying campaign against the superior Czech Republic, four veteran players will stay at home.
"This is a welcome and healthy process for local handball, but the feeling of missing out is enormous," admits Luzon. "We dreamed of this as children."
After 14 years in the national team uniform, 32-year-old Neeman will watch the beginning of this process from the sidelines and pray for a twist in the plot. "It hurts," he says. "After the decision was reached I asked myself, 'What's next?' I still have the fantasy that suddenly everything will be solved and they will want me back. The ball's in their court."