Ahead of their first home match at EHF EURO 2020, the Austrian national team received a last-minute pep-talk from Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Thursday.
Coach Ales Pajovic was joined by the entire 16-man squad and members of the coaching and backroom staff inside the presidential palace, the illustrious Hofburg, in the centre of Vienna.
Van der Bellen was introduced to everyone from the team and after a short speech was presented with a personalised and autographed jersey by Austrian captain Nikola Bilyk.
The President’s words of encouragement acted as the perfect final preparation for the Austrians before their preliminary round opener on Friday (TO 18:30 hrs CET) against the Czech Republic.
Having posed for photographs, Van der Bellen highlighted the importance of the competition in Austria but laughed off suggestions of his role as motivator for the team.
The president told ehf-euro.com: “I have big respect for the coach and the captain as you have a lot of responsibility. The media criticises you a lot when something is not going well – it is similar to politics in that respect. So they have my utmost respect.
“The competition itself is important – remember we are a relatively small country in the heart of Europe and everything is subtly connected: sport, culture and economic relationships. I think it is great that this European championship will be broadcast all over the world.”
For Pajovic and the players, the palatial surroundings served as the ultimate incentive to get their EHF EURO 2020 off to a winning start when they throw off against the Czechs.
“It was amazing to be here and to meet the president inside his home,” said left wing Raul Santos, who will be making his second appearance at an EHF EURO.
“It’s a great last push for the team before the first game. It’s the best kind of preparation you can have.”
Ich wünsche dem @HandballAustria Männer-Nationalteam eine erfolgreiche @EHFEURO und dass sie ihre Ziele erreichen – jeder für sich persönlich & gemeinsam als Nationalteam. Ich bin überzeugt, sie werden das schaffen. Wir sind bereits jetzt stolz auf die bisherige Leistung. (vdb) pic.twitter.com/brtH8lJYwE
— A. Van der Bellen (@vanderbellen) January 9, 2020
Let the games begin
Captain Bilyk agreed with his teammate: “It is something special that doesn’t happen every day to a player. It’s events like this that show the importance of the tournament for the whole of Austria. Everyone will be watching us and meeting the president was the last motivation for us. Now the EHF EURO can start.”
The presidential meeting was the team’s final commitment before the action gets under way in Vienna, and boss Pajovic is looking forward to finally throwing off.
“We can’t wait for the first game – we’ve had a long training camp and of course we’re a little nervous waiting for the first game but tomorrow we start,” he said.
“It’s nice to be here with the president but now we have to back now and focus on the game. We have one more training session and watch some videos before we play.”
The coach also hopes his side can embrace playing in front of a sold-out Stadthalle arena during their matches in Vienna and use the crowd to their advantage.
Pajovic added: “It’s always nice to play at home and for the opposing team it will not be so easy as we will have 7,000 fans acting as the eighth player for our team.
“At EHF EURO 2004, I played at home for Slovenia and the atmosphere was incredible, we saw that in the game against Germany with 5,000 fans. I hope the same will come tomorrow.”
The president is Alexander Van der Bellen. He met the @HandballAustria and gave the players handshakes. Team captain gave him a signed jersey with his own name at the back. #ehfeuro2020 #dreamwinremember pic.twitter.com/9GJT2XPWqE
— EHF EURO (@EHFEURO) January 9, 2020