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29.11.2013, 11:12
Renaissance of Balkan Classico
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BLOG: Two giants of former times are going to face each other in the last Match of the Week of the year on Saturday as the 2004 winners will receive neighbours from Zagreb. Tom is ready to wear sun glasses at Zlatorog Arena and is set to meet his distant family too.
 

Renaissance of Balkan Classico

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, two giants of handball battled it out against the mighty Barcelona to be considered the best in Europe. For those of you, like me, who had to relearn the geography of Europe after school, this is no science fiction fairy tale, this is the truth.

At a time when young nations of modern Europe, were unfurling their flags and beating their chests with new found independence, Celje, of Slovenia and Zagreb, of Croatia, were once considered the greats of Europe.

For the newly converted to handball, who know only the Kiels or Barcelonas of the handball stratosphere, Celje and Zagreb once dominated and are both former champions; Celje in the modern era of CL, once, and Zagreb, twice in the previous incarnation of the competition.

The fact that neither has more titles is because Barcelona was at its zenith at around the same time and they, not the Balkan neighbours, were the ones that won the titles.

So, it’s not a fairy tale, but once upon a time, this game, was, “The Balkan El Classico”. It’s not too hard to imagine actually, if you have visited either of these two handball mad places. The fans are bedecked in the chess board of Zagreb or the yellow of Celje.

Lately of course the importance of this game has been slightly diluted with emergence of other teams from the Balkan region, particularly Skopje, but the game holds a huge importance this time round.

If we look at both teams they are giving youth a chance. To be honest, this is a euphemism for financial constraint, but in a handball world gone mad, with buying only stars or pumping money into a latest project, this is somewhat refreshing.

Instead of the “Omnium Gatherum” of the bigger teams, both of these clubs have gone for a more national core. In fact, Zagreb is made up of an entirely Croatian roster and Celje much the same, except with Slovenians, with only a few, very young imports.

They both play fast attractive handball, with youthful exuberance matched with no mean level of skill. The speed with which they play is not tempered by patience and so is apt to produce some woeful mistakes alongside some sublime passages of play.

If this is what Balkan handball is producing at this young age, then I better wear my sunglasses to the game as the future of handball in the region is looking bright.

I don’t know what they are feeding these young guys in Croatia, but they are huge men and there is something in the water in Slovenia, that even though they are not so big, they have some fight in them.

Neither team is guaranteed a place in the last 16 from this group, but they are evenly matched. Neither is quite there, in terms of getting a “big” result against one of the stronger teams, but they are not far away.

They are as closely matched as two teams could be; the four points that both shares, in the group, showing how close they actually are. Even Zvizej and Valcic, at 33 and 35 respectively, are the “old” men on the team. The majority of the remaining players are teenagers or early twenties.

So once again, this match is vital to both these giants of former times, if they are to progress to the knockout stages. A home win for Celje is of paramount importance as they lost away to Zagreb earlier in the group. It is a renaissance of the “Classico” of former times, even though the prize it once was is not so great today.

I’m really looking forward to it. My research on both teams is nearly done. I actually discovered the Balkan branch of my family tree in one Obranovic.

Now all I have to do is discover some music these young guys listen to (is rap still in fashion?) or maybe watch some Disney DVDs.

Just so I have something to talk to them about.

Ajde!!!!!

Further information

Follow the last Match of the Week in 2013 live on ehfTV.com on Saturday, at 20:30 hrs local time


TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehfTV commentator
 
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