Kristopans carries Latvian hopes on his giant shoulders

FEATURE: Newly crowned VELUX EHF Champions League winner Dainis Kristopans is supposed to steer the Baltic side to their first ever EHF EURO

Kristopans in attack against Estonia in EHF EURO 2020 Qualification

The entire Latvian handball community fans were crossing their fingers for their hero in Cologne and at the end of “the best weekend of my life,” Dainis Kristopans stood atop the winners’ podium at the VELUX EHF FINAL4.

On Friday the towering 215 cm left-hander was announced the best right back in the VELUX EHF Champions League All-Star Team 2018/19 and he lived up to that award on Saturday as he dragged his club HC Vardar into the final with 10 goals in the sensational 29:27 win over against Barcelona.

On Sunday, the Latvian added four more goals to his tally as they defeated the favourites from Veszprém 27:24 and Kristopans got his hands on the trophy for the very first time.

At the end of this season, Kristopans was the second top scorer with 94 goals, only topped by Kielce’s Alex Dujshebaev on 99. Kristopans and his teammates have been enjoying a well-earned party in Skopje, but then it is back to business for his final mission of the season - steer the Latvian national team to first major tournament, EHF EURO 2020.

After four rounds, the Latvians sit second in Group 4 with six points on their account after beating Estonia twice and the Netherlands once. The ticket for the EHF EURO 2020 in Sweden, Norway and Austria is only one victory away.

First, on Wednesday 12 June, Kristopans and co. have the chance to avenge a 27:21 defeat to Slovenia in October. Should they lose, the final duel away to Netherlands on 16 June will decide who will make it through.

Funnily enough, goal-machine Kristopans is not the top scorer for the Latvians in this campaign, Maris Versakovs is, but he will highly motivated to guide his nation to qualification and in the clash against the already qualified Slovenians, featuring his Vardar teammate Stas Skube.

“After all those parties, I will rest a bit, then I prepare for the national team and hope to make it to the EHF EURO,” said Kristopans, who joined Vardar in 2017 from Meshkov Brest.

On Sunday night, he could not immediately grasp what had happened.

“The whole weekend was a like a cartoon with a happy ending. We just came here, did our work, played with heart. We gave all we have, we are like a family,” he explained the secret of the Vardar success.

And the same family approach will be the key to the EHF EURO ticket for Latvia: “We are all friends, we always fight for each other. Although handball is not the top sport at Latvia, we have some good players and generated some interest, so now we hope to make the final step.”

This campaign is a huge improvement on their previous EHF EURO qualification effort, when the Latvians did not win a single point against Hungary, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The closest they have come to reaching a major tournament was the qualification play-offs for the World Championship 2017, when they were one goal short against. Latvia have put themselves in a great position to make history and Dainis Kristopans will play a central role in making another dream a reality.

written by Björn Pazen / cor