The aim of the series was to sum up the highlights of the previous season, with emphasis on the World Championship and the Olympic Games. In choosing the Most Valuable Player of the season, I have also considered club level.
Truth be told, this is a tribute to a player’s career and final year in the elite. Never before had she scored over a hundred goals in one Champions League season. Never before had she reached the ChL final with her home club. Finally, and most importantly, never before had she attained such success at a final tournament of nations. Indeed, I believe that the apex of Bojana Popović’s career must be rewarded: to retire in full glory with no reserves is evidence of her work ethic and visionary approach.
A promise kept
“Never have I had this feeling of complete celebration when I won the Champions League in Denmark. I imagined what it would be like to win the trophy in Podgorica, celebrating the title for months! Four times in a row I have played a ChL semi-final with the Blues. In Denmark I won the trophy five times. It was logical to come back, to try to achieve what I once started. (…) The truth is that I dream of the Olympics and that’s the last thing I think of playing in my career.” 4th July 2010, Arena, N°1252
Two years ago, she set two far-fetched objectives for herself: to play the final of the ChL in Podgorica and to take part in the Olympic Games. All her work and efforts focused on achieving these audacious goals. Two years were all she needed to take Budućnost and specifically the Montenegrin NT from third world to world-class.
My objection to the way she implemented her plan is that she did not make concessions when it came to her position in attack. Whatever her efficiency as a shooter in the left back position was, she never withdrew. Meanwhile, the younger Jovanović and Knežević had to play in the centre back, getting fewer direct achievements and more physical work. I have always wondered why Popović did not settle for the centre back position more often in order to give the others, who would have been at least as efficient as she was at scoring, a chance to play in their preferred position.
The mistress of the money-time
“I think luck is really by my side, knowledge is probably not, but somehow I always take trophies and I am thankful for this fortune.” Popović for the EHF website after the ChL final
She only defended one half per match or less in position one. The only way to overlook this drawback is to measure her broader contribution to the team’s performance in terms of leadership and time management, expertise that the best defenders in the world do not possess.
Popović is renowned for her decision making under pressure, generally in the final ten minutes of the game. She is one of the rare kinds who does not acknowledge defeat until the final whistle. She calculates the necessary rate of success and she informs herself constantly on the time left, without scramble. In 2012 “the Popović method” succeeded many times, like in the first leg of the ChL final, when she brought Budućnost from minus five within a two-goal difference in under three minutes.
Finally, at the OG, she orchestrated the final ten minutes of the quarter-final masterfully, breaking down the French defence machine. She was close to a reversal in the final against Norway, but the method only works every other time, as there is one thing to it even Popović can’t control: luck.
The swan song
“My dream has come true as well as the rest of the girls. I can’t believe we are in the final! This is a big day for Montenegro. I feel empty now, I have used so much energy, it feels like I am dreaming.” Popović for the official London 2012 website after the OG semi-final
Popović had an average WCh in which she showed mental weakness and lack of fitness. A comparison between her statistics from the 2010 ECh and those from 2011, reveals a severe drop in 9m shooting efficiency, a lack of ideas in the crucial matches (vs. Norway and Spain) and very little personal initiative. This same sort of play could be observed in the group stages of the ChL, which seems to suggest that Popović could not reach the desired level by December. I argue that in terms of physical preparation, she gave up on the WCh in order to save power for the rest of the season.
Oh well, she dried her tears and went on to prove her distinctive nature one last time, at the OG. Her statistics had never looked better, as the OG schedule, with a one-day break between games, fitted her like a glove.
With 46/77 goals and a 60% success rate she finished second-best scorer of the tournament. Her 44 assists in 8 games represent almost twice the number reached by any other player. She scored 14/33 goals from the 9m line, but the interesting part is how she relied more on her individual efforts than at the 2011 WCh or the 2010 ECh: 14/20 goals through breakthroughs and 7/9 from the 6m line.
« She is the most talented player I have ever met. She is capable of everything: she can shoot, break through, she is tall (1,85 m). There is genius in this girl. She sees everything but pretends she does not (…) What? She has never won the IHF Player of the Year Award? This is a scandal. She deserves it though. » Olivier Khrumbholz for Le Républicain Lorrain, February 2012
“Her special goal from seven meters in the semi-final against Cecilie Leganger was really amazing. I’ve watched it at least 1000 times! I was wondering all the time whether I would be able to score like this!” Ausra Fridrikas for the EHF website, May 2012
“They are going to have to name cities after her when she retires from handball. Popović has been a true legend of the sport and a wonderful ambassador.” IHF and EHF commentator Paul Bray during a live broadcast at the London Olympics