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If the mood in Croatia is slightly downcast following a third-place finish in this month's men's continental handball finals, the country's futsal side, as hosts, can provide the perfect pick-me-up with victory in their UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 Group A opener against Romania.
Hopes were high that Croatia – world handball champions in 2003 and twice runners-up since – could bring back gold from the competition, which concluded across the border in Serbia on Sunday. Having dominated the front and back pages here of late, handball is making way for another indoor sport as Croatia's futsal players prepare for their first final tournament appearance in 11 years.
Asked if his squad could lift the nation's spirits by claiming three points in Split on Tuesday, coach Mato Stanković said: "I hope so but you never know. First of all, I hope the hall will be full and after that anything is possible. Now that it [the handball] has finished maybe people will look towards the futsal."
Stanković and his players will be vociferously backed at the Spaladium Arena but the coach knows that hosting a major event can be a double-edged sword. "We have a lot pressure on our shoulders, people expect a lot from us in this tournament," he said. "We are a very young team and I hope that the pressure and the home crowd will give us the advantage, and that we'll repay them with the result that everyone in Croatia expects from us."
Leading Romania in their second EURO in three editions – they first qualified for the 2007 finals in Portugal – the experienced Sito Rivera has no qualms about his charges being able to handle the occasion. "I know my players very well, many of them have played in the UEFA Futsal Cup with [City'Us] Târgu Mureş and Győri [ETO FC]," he said. "We will play well in the first game and are focused: the atmosphere will not be a problem for us."
The sides met twice in Croatia 12 months ago, with the hosts losing the first friendly 4-1 before recording a 5-2 win the next day. "They have a very young team but also a lot of talent – I expect them to play well," said Rivera. Stanković added: "They are a very good team with ten or 11 players of equal ability. They're very experienced side with a lot of good points."
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