Spain vs Slovenia: a semi-final steeped in history

FEATURE: The last team to defeat Spain at an EHF EURO was none other than Slovenia, and the team captains made their European championship debuts at the same event, in 2004

Slovenia and Spain's coaches and players were all smiles before the semi-final on Saturday. Photo © Jure Erzen / kolektiff

On 28 January 2018, Spain won their first EHF EURO title after defeating record champions Sweden in the final. Only one team beat Spain on the road to the trophy in Croatia – their upcoming semi-final opponents Slovenia.

“This is a really different story now – we are in the semi-finals of a European championship and it’s a really different point of view. Back then, in 2018, it was a before and after point in our competition, and then at the end of the day we were European champions,” said Spain coach Jordi Ribeira of the main round loss to Slovenia in Varazdin, adding that it ended up being the shake-up his team needed.

“Here the story is different, because it is a semi-final, so the only important point will be to get the victory of course.”

“I don’t think he remembers me, because I was not bald then!”

That 31:26 victory for Slovenia followed a long history between the teams, which has seen Spain usually the dominant side. Spain have won 10 of the 13 matches played against Slovenia, and one game ended in a draw.

Spain and Slovenia have a history of goal fests. For both teams, their EURO record for the highest-scoring game was against the other – twice. At the EHF EUROs in 2006 and 2010, Spain and Slovenia’s mutual clashes ended with a total of 72 goals scored.

Slovenia also played another 72-goal game, against Czech Republic in 2010, while Spain’s record for most goals against an opponent was against Slovenia, when they tallied 40 goals in the EHF EURO 2010 match in Innsbruck.

There is also individual history. The two team captains, Slovenia’s Vid Kavticnik and Spain’s Raul Entrerrios, made their debut at the same EHF EURO, in 2004. That was the first and only time Slovenia reached the semi-finals or the trophy match at the EHF EURO, and they clinched the silver medal in front of their home crowd, while Spain ranked 10th at that event.

The 10th-place finish was Spain’s lowest rank in history, while Slovenia secured their best position in the event at that edition. Kavticnik was also named the All-star Team right wing at that EURO.

“I don’t think he remembers me, because I was not bald then!” laughed Kavticnik when asked if he remembers Entrerrios from that event, but the Spanish MVP of the EHF EURO 2016 has not forgotten.

“I do remember because 2004 was my first important championship and I have a really special memory from that occasion. I remember the really good job that Slovenia did in that championship of course,” he said.

11 of 16 Slovenia players coached by Spaniards in clubs

The individual history regarding the final weekend for these teams extends beyond the players. Slovenia coach Ljubomir Vranjes won his last of three EHF EURO titles, playing for Sweden, in 2002 – and that final against Germany took place in Stockholm.

“Eighteen years ago, yes. It was nice of course. We won the European championship, in front of our Swedish fans. It was one of the most special moments in my handball career, so I don’t forget that moment so easy,” said Vranjes.

There are also current links between Slovenia and Spain. As stand-in on-court captain for injured Kavticnik, Jure Dolenec, highlighted, 11 of the 18 players with Slovenia are coached by Spaniards. Dolenec himself also plays in Spain, with VELUX EHF Champions League record winners Barça.

“Almost all the players are playing now in clubs with Spanish coaches, which is giving us, I would say, at least a similar system in defence.”

Ribeira: A really great team in front of us

Spain entered the EHF EURO 2020 as one of the favourites for the title, given their status as defending champions. However, the players certainly do not see Spain as having the clear upper hand before this encounter. In fact, Slovenia left back Borut Mackovsek said if he could choose the semi-final opponent out of Croatia and Spain, he would pick Spain.

“If I could choose, I would prefer to play against Spain,” said Mackovsek after their last main round match, versus Norway, which decided which group I team they would meet in the semi-final.           

“Spain, I think they’re the oldest team in this EURO and we are young. I think we can run really good, and this will be our advantage in this game. We want to do this, we did this every game and we want to continue doing that. Against them, we will try to run as much as we can and I don’t think they can they can keep up the pace with us.”

His counterpart for Spain, Joan Canellas, had previously stated that facing Norway might give his team a stronger chance, saying: “Maybe a Scandinavian team such as Norway fits us better than Slovenia.”

In any case, the coaches agreed it would be a challenging and exciting semi-final – and that each side would be able to surprise the other.

“We have in front of us, a really great team – not only from a tactical point of view, but also in the side of each and every player is really fantastic in that team,” said Ribeira. “In general, these players have really good vision of the game. It’s going to be really difficult for us to anticipate what’s going to happen, but we hope it’s going to be a good match.”

“They play clever handball, tactical. They have it all. Impressive team for me to analyse. We are also looking forward to meeting such a great team tomorrow,” concluded Vranjes.

written by Courtney Gahan / jh