Women at the heart of the game: Gordana Naceva’s love for sport
‘Women at the Heart of the Game’ is a weekly series in the build-up to the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 and features former stars who have transitioned into a new role. In today’s second episode: Gordana Naceva.
The Women’s EHF EURO 2022 is slowly approaching and from 4 until 20 November all eyes will be on 16 teams who will play with heart for the trophy in Slovenia, North Macedonia and Montenegro. This will be the second time North Macedonia is hosting the European Championship and for EHF EURO’s 15th edition legendary goalkeeper Gordana Naceva has been chosen as an ambassador.
Gordana Naceva has been part of North Macedonia’s biggest sports success. Her name is written in handball history. Once a talented goalkeeper, team captain of European champions Kometal Skopje and the women’s national team, today a strong woman in sport with a law degree and passion for handball.
Naceva always had an interest for the sport – but handball was not her first love. When she was young, she liked to play basketball in the streets of her neighbourhood and transferred that love to the court in school. As a playmaker, she loved to score points but there was not a women’s club in Sveti Nikole, her native village. The only women’s club in the city was Handball Club Ovche Pole. That is how it all started.
“Just like in basketball, I wanted to play and score. At one training there was no goalkeeper, and as I was the youngest player there, they told me I have to stand between the posts. I managed to save a few shots and the coach told me I seemed good at it and left me there. The rest is history, the six-metre goal area became my life. Handball became my life,’’ says Naceva.
“Sometimes you don't know where life will lead you. I ended up as a goalkeeper, a very important role in handball, even though I never thought of it. Goalkeepers can correct the mistakes of the defence and in a way decide the game, which is really shown in the last few years,” Naceva adds.
Four years was Naceva playing in her hometown, trying to give her best on the court when she got a call from DIN from Nis. A club that changed her approach to handball.
“I moved to DIN from Nis when I was only 17 years old, still in high school. Moving to such a club, I went two leagues up, playing the First Yugoslav League. From being the third goalkeeper, I became the first. I worked hard. It was there where I improved my goalkeeping technique. I spent four wonderful years there,” she recalls.
“Thanks to the performance for DIN, I was part of the Yugoslavia junior national team and also on the squad list for the senior team for the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, but the team couldn’t take part due to the happenings in the country. For me, it was amazing as I got a chance to play with players I used to look up to as role models: Svetlana Kitic, Natasa Kolega, Dragana Pesic, etc.” says Naceva.
Her goalkeeping skills have not gone unnoticed in Europe and she was ready to try herself outside of Yugoslavia until a call by the president of the Skopje-based club Gjorche Petrov. He had the ambition of having a big women’s club, ready to play in Europe’s top-tier competition and when home calls, it is hard not to say yes.
“Women’s handball in our country was not on a high level at the time but President Gjorche Petrov said they want to play the EHF Champions League and want me to be part of it. For me, that was unbelievable to hear. But sometimes you have to dream big. My parents wanted me to come back too as things started to change in Yugoslavia,” says Naceva.
One decision can have such a huge impact on one's life, trailing the path for years to come. Naceva is glad she took that decision even though at the time she could not predict what followed next.
“Just imagine what a blessing it is to be a part of your country's biggest sports success. Not a lot of players can achieve that. We won the Champions League trophy in our country, our city, in our fortress ‘Kale.’ We had such a big reception when we returned from the World Championship in 1997, and loud support at the following EHF EUROs.”
EHF EURO group C, which will be played in Skopje, is another great chance to raise women’s handball to a higher level, to put the sport in the spotlight, and to get little girls to start to have more interest in handball. Sport is the best thing that can happen to a child.
Gordana Naceva spent 13 years in the club, winning 13 domestic championships and 12 cup titles, playing two Champions League finals, becoming a European champion, and participating in four major tournaments with the national team.
“Women’s handball in our country started in 1997 with us finishing seventh at the World Championship. We had a reception like we were champions. We won against Denmark, the Olympic gold medallists. I remember when we got back to Skopje, I saw police lights behind us and thought: Are they really pulling us off now? I did not realise they were escorting us to the reception. It followed with three eight places – at two EHF EUROs and another World Championship. We were the fans’ favourites,” says Naceva.
“Club-wise, everything started in 2000 when we defeated Hypo Niederösterreich in a home match. It drew the attention of Trifun Kostovski; he became our sponsor and biggest supporter. We had to pause a year from European competitions, but when we came back, we won the Champions League against FTC Herz Budapest.”
“19 May 2002 is the day I will never forget in my life, I still remember every second of it. We played good in Hungary and lost only by two goals. In the rematch, the Arena was packed, the atmosphere was hot, and we were on top,” Naceva remembers.
Gordana Naceva ended her professional career in 2004, and right from the start knew she wanted to do something connected to her law degree. Her first job was at the Ministry of Finance until she gave birth to her daughter, Mia. As time passed, Naceva realised she missed handball and wanted to connect the sport and her knowledge.
“My first role was national team director and I loved that job, I enjoyed every moment spent with the team. I was also the first female EHF delegate from North Macedonia, but it all led to the role I still have today, president of Vardar. I managed to balance work and family. To this day, my daughter Mia supports my work, when Vardar was on top in the Champions League and now when we play domestic league with young talents from our country,” says Naceva.
The Macedonian goalkeeper got the taste of EHF Champions League finals as a player and went to five EHF FINAL4 tournaments as the president of Vardar. Women’s handball in North Macedonia had glorious times and great success before it reached the bottom. However, things are starting to change as more and more handball enthusiasts work in different fields, promoting women’s handball.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have continuity to save brands in sport, we don’t have Kometal nor Vardar in women’s handball, both clubs with great success. Finances have an influence on that, and we need to be more determined to invest in sports development. Enthusiasm, vision, ambition, and clear goals are very important to have for that. Women’s handball reached its low five years ago, and it has started to come back, slowly,” the legendary goalkeeper says.
Hosting Women’s EHF EURO 2022 group C in November is a great opportunity to put the spotlight back on women’s handball in North Macedonia and get in the interest in handball of girls all over the country. Having an opportunity to support the talents from North Macedonia as well as watch France, Netherlands, and Romania is of great value.
“EHF EURO group C, which will be played in Skopje, is another great chance to raise women’s handball to a higher level, to put the sport in the spotlight, and to get the little girls to start to have more interest in handball. Sport is the best thing that can happen to a child, and I would like parents and children to hear that. Sport can teach you so many things. That is why this competition will be wind in the wings for all of us in women’s handball to do something better,” Naceva says.
“An additional bonus is we can promote our country, our culture and show what can we offer. We want all teams to enjoy their stay.”
Women’s national team director, first female EHF delegate from North Macedonia, EHF Women’s Handball Board and EHF Women’s National Team Committee board member, UEFA anti-violence conference guest, Women Forum Club Handball Vice-President, Executive member of the Olympic Committee of North Macedonia, sport ambassador of the European Week of Sport – just some of the sports functions Naceva have held in previous years.
Currently, she is the president of the women’s club Vardar, part of the Executive Committee of the Handball Federation of North Macedonia, and part of the ‘Gender Equality in Sports’ programme sponsored by the Olympic Committee.
“Analyses have shown there is less than 1 percent of women in sports at important functions. I believe if we want to improve women’s sport, there should be more women with key roles allowing them to make decisions. That’s why I agreed to be part of this group, a group of female enthusiasts working as volunteers, trying to make a difference. Women’s sport should go side by side with men’s – men are our equal partners in reaching the same goals and sports development for both sides,” says Naceva.
All her effort, love and passion prove she is a real woman at the heart of the game. That’s why the North Macedonia Handball Federation had no doubt to choose Gordana Naceva as an ambassador for the EHF EURO 2022.
“For me, it is an honour that I was chosen to be an ambassador. To promote your country and our sport at such an event is a big accomplishment. To be part of the EHF EURO again. The last time North Macedonia was a host was in 2008, and I already had finished my career so I missed the chance to play the tournament in front of our fans. That’s why I will give extra effort to give people an enjoyable time here.”