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Date: 6/3/2019
 

The first weekend of June saw a celebration worthy of what was the 10th edition of the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne, Germany, where the EHF Champions League season culminated in a thrilling three-day event featuring an action-packed opening day including a live concert and meet-and-greet with the players, the semi-finals, and the finals. The most coveted trophy in men’s European club handball was won by Macedonian team HC Vardar, who wrote an epic story of underdogs triumphing thanks to sheer will and fighting spirit.

 

It is the second Champions League title for Vardar in three years, after their victory in 2017 on their debut at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne. They were the first Macedonian team to win the trophy and remain the only one to have done so.

 

Vardar defeated Telekom Veszprém HC 27:24 (16:11) in the final, leaving the Hungarian team with their fourth loss in four attempts in the Champions League trophy match. The Macedonian side were in the lead throughout the game, creating a clear half-time advantage before Veszprém fought back for a close finish to the game.

 

Vardar’s presence in the final was hardly expected – both during the season and in the first 45 minutes of the semi-final on Saturday. Taking on the winners of the regular season group from which all the semi-finalist teams came, record champions Barça Lassa, Vardar fell behind for a score if 9:16 at half-time – the biggest deficit ever in a semi-final at the EHF FINAL4.

 

But they also pulled off the most significant turnaround, as they pushed through the second half and were rewarded as the score line slowly decreased in the last 15 minutes. Vardar took the lead against the favourites for the title with less than two minutes remaining, and it was a goal from team captain Stojanche Stoilov that sealed the 29:27 victory in the last seconds.  

 

“The whole season we have fought like lions. Therefore, everything was possible. We fight for us. We give the best every time,” said Vardar’s Rogerio Moraes.

 

With the trophy win, coach Roberto Garcia Parrondo became the second person ever to win the Champions League as both a coach and a player. He claimed the title with Ciudad Real in 2008 and 2009 – playing alongside his opposing coach in the final, Veszprém’s David Davis, and coached by two-time IHF World Player of the Year Talant Dujshebaev. Alongside Barça coach Xavi Pascual, also a former player, the group made up an all-Spanish cohort of coaches at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 2019 – a very impressive statistic for the nation that also currently holds the European title.

 

For Veszprém it was a bitter defeat, as it not only meant their fourth loss in the final in as many attempts, but saw two iconic players end their career without adding a last trophy to their cabinet. Hungary national player and two-time Champions League winner with his former club Barcelona, Laszlo Nagy, finished his 22-year professional career and will start a new role as sports director for Veszprém. His Serbian teammate Momir Ilic, who also won the Champions League twice with his former club, THW Kiel, and was top scorer of the highest-level European competition twice, in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, will become assistant coach for Veszprém.

 

Prior to Sunday’s final, the teams defeated in the semi-finals, Barça and Polish club PGE Vive Kielce, took the court for the bronze-medal game. Kielce had been defeated by Veszprém 30:33 on Saturday and hoped to reward their loyal fans with a bronze medal on the last day of the season. It was not to be however – in the highest-scoring match in EHF FINAL4 history, Barça collected a 40:35 win and with it third place.

 

However, Kielce had one reason to celebrate, as their right back Alex Dujshebaev took his season tally to 99 goals over the weekend and thereby became the first Spaniard ever to finish as top scorer of the Champions League season. The other significant individual award of the weekend went to Vardar’s Igor Karacic, who became the first Croatian MVP of the EHF FINAL4.

 

Photo: EHF/Heimken

 

 

 

 

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