20210713 Day 1 Feature Bulgaria W BUL UKR
Beach Handball

Bulgaria feeling “much fire inside” at home EURO

EHF / Eric Willemsen

Bulgaria have been so eager to start playing at their home Beach Handball EURO 2021 in Varna, they maybe wanted it a little bit too much.

“We were too ambitious,” said Samet Murtazali, the women’s head coach, after his team lost their first game 2:0 (26:18, 32:13) to Ukraine on the sun-soaked opening day of the championships Tuesday.

“We were burning to play the game, we had so much fire inside us, that some things didn’t work out,” Murtazali said. “Next time we will try to be a little bit more mobilised, to be a little bit calmer, to work on our attack, to be comfortable in our defence.”

Just hours earlier, a similar story for the men’s team. Preslav Stanchev gave the hosts an early lead with his first of 10 points against Poland, but Bulgaria ended up losing 2:0 following two tight sets: 14:11 and 21:20.

Both teams also lost their second game of the day – the women against Turkey, 2:0 (21:15, 20:9), and the men against record four-time European champions Croatia, 2:0 (15:12, 26:18).

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Result-wise not the start Bulgaria had hoped for. But who can blame them? Hosting the European Championships against the backdrop of the Black Sea marks an important revival for Bulgaria as a beach handball nation.

The federation has been rebuilding both national teams recently.

The women’s side once mingled with the world’s best teams when they reached the semi-final of the World Championship – in Brazil in 2006, the same year they won the Balkan Championship.

Since then, the team has disappeared from the radar of international beach handball.

“That was a long time ago,” Murtazali said with a smile, referring to that fourth-place finish at the worlds 15 years ago.

“We started again two, three years ago to get back in this game,” the coach said. “We should be patient and work hard and hopefully get good results, of course.”

Good results were lacking on the opening day.

“This was our first game,” said Bulgaria player Valeria Miladinova, daughter of national team coach Irina, after the Ukraine match.

“It was our first match as a team playing here. But our coaches, they believe in us. I am sure the next game the team will be more focused on winning,” she said.

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A focus on winning is also what the men’s team need in their preliminary round closer against Sweden on Wednesday.

Cheered by a large crowd, Bulgaria showed glimpses of the strong side it might be in years to come. Losing to Poland and Croatia is nothing to be ashamed of, as head coach Veselin Stankov was aware.

“The atmosphere is great here at home in Varna. We played against two very, very good opponents, who are very good on the international level,” said Stankov, who played for local club Lokomotiv Varna in the EHF Champions League two decades ago.

Todor Kirev, one of three Asti 91 players in the squad, added “we are trying to play at our maximum level every single game, regardless of our opponents. We are trying to give our 100 percent and, ideally, get to the 10th, 12th place.”

Bulgaria have not been a household name in men’s beach handball so far. To turn the tide, the federation has started working with a young team, guided by two experienced players: Dimitar Petkov (37) and Veselin Chakmakov (36).

“We have been playing together for only like 20 days or so,” Stankov said. “It is a very young team. Most of the players are between 19 and 24 years of age. We hope that we are building towards the future.”

We were too ambitious. We were burning to play the game, we had so much fire inside us, that some things didn’t work out ... We started again two, three years ago. We should be patient and work hard and hopefully get good results, of course.
Samet Murtazali
Head coach of the Bulgarian women's national beach handball team

Organising the European Championships is more than an honour for Bulgaria, it is a sign of the progress beach handball has been making in the country.

And even if expectations are moderate, hosting the best teams from Europe means pressure.

“We are the organisers of the whole tournament, so we have a little bit pressure,” women’s coach Murtazali said. “When we go somewhere as a guest, we play so much more relaxed because we believe that nobody is watching us.”

Bulgaria might soon get used to the idea that beach handball fans want to watch them.

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