Super Mario and friends out to rescue Croatia
ZAGREB (Croatia) - Croatia face the daunting prospect of an early elimination in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers with an important window looming.
Under the stewardship of new head coach Damir Mulaomerovic, there is little time to waste in finding success at the start of what they hope will be a busy summer as they look to avoid missing out on the World Cup once again, after failing to make the trip to China in 2019.
"IT'S TIME TO START CREATING A BEAUTIFUL STORY AND START FIGHTING FOR MEDALS."
Mario Hezonja is back with the national team for the upcoming final window of the First Round and hopes the new era will be a catalyst for change with aims of getting back to the highest echelons of international basketball.
"An unusual summer awaits us, where we have, God willing, two qualifying windows for the World Cup and then EuroBasket," he said, via a press conference. "I am only interested in Croatia, our team.
"Mula is here, we've known each other for many years. I followed everything throughout the year because I knew what awaited us this summer. I wanted to prepare as well as possible, mentally and physically after a difficult season in Europe.
"Such opportunities build great things. It's time to start creating a beautiful story and start fighting for medals because I think Croatia belongs here."
Three successive defeats to start the European Qualifiers put Croatia's World Cup bid under serious threat. They bounced back to defeat Sweden on the road in overtime, behind an inspired display from 21-year-old Karlo Matkovic in February, and now have reinforcements.
The national team's all-time leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic is part of the squad alongside Ivica Zubac following their seasons in the NBA, while Dragan Bender returns to the fold with the national team.
"I think that the guys who will be here, under the leadership of Bogdanovic and Zubac, are eager and can't wait for the qualifications," said Mulaomerovic. "We are ready, some guys are tired, but we will try to combine it all, create a good atmosphere, train well, and we will have the best possible conditions."
On Bender, he added, "I must emphasize that he called me, he surprised me very positively and said that he would come to train and like to be a member of the national team. I think that's the right attitude."
Croatia cannot afford an adjustment period with lots at stake as they head into their final two games sat bottom of Group C. The task is far from simple, too, with a trip to Slovenia up next as Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic are reunited for the reigning European champions.
Defeat could spell the end of Croatia's World Cup hopes at the first hurdle, but should they still be alive, they face a decisive encounter against Finland in front of their home fans in Rijeka - likely needing victory in order to make it through to the Second Round.
"There is no need to explain the importance of these matches," stated Mulaomerovic. "It is certain in our group that they will play until the last minute, so I hope that we will prepare well and be healthy."
Croatian legend Dino Radja added, "I think we have a right to be optimistic about the team coming together. Everyone needs to work hard and prepare well. We will have a full arena in Ljubljana, and it is a pleasure to play in these conditions, so I hope that it will be a great challenge for all."
Croatia will also step up preparations for FIBA EuroBasket 2022 in the coming months as they head to Milan for Group C action - alongside Greece, Great Britain, Estonia, Ukraine and the hosts, Italy - but their immediate focus is continuing the road towards another major tournament.