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Wonderous Vardar grab VELUX EHF Champions League title by beating Barcelona and PSG within 24 hours

The winning team HC Vardar Skopje (Photo: Michael HEUBERGER, AIPS-Handball Commission)
by Bjorn Pazen, AIPS Handball Commission

COLOGNE, June 7, 2017 - First HSV Hamburg in 2013, then SG Flensburg-Handewitt in 2014, then Vive Tauron Kielce in 2016 and in 2017 HC Vardar – the series of surprise winners at the VELUX EHF FINAL4. One day after they had beaten FC Barcelona Lassa in the semifinal, the Macedonian champions defeated Paris Saint-Germain Handball 24:23 courtesy of a last second goal by Ivan Cupic. Thus the right wing became the first male handball player since 2009 to defend an EHF Champions League title.

“I am very proud to be part of that team. The guys are great characters and full of courage during the whole season. This is very important for all the team, for the club and for the whole country. We didn’t just come here to play, we came here for winning the title,” said line player and captain of Vardar Stojanche Stoilov.

These are the historic facts of the triumph:

Vardar are the first Macedonian club to win the EHF Champions League and the 13th overall club to win the trophy. Vardar are the sixth different champion in the past six years. FYR Macedonia are the third nation after Slovenia and Spain, which is now represented by men's and women's EHF Champions League winners. Kometal Skopje won the women’s competition in 2003.

After Spain, Germany, Slovenia, France and Poland, FYR Macedonia is the sixth nation representing a men’s EHF Champions League winner. Raul Gonzalez is the third Spanish coach in the past three years after Xavi Pascual (Barcelona) and Talant Dujshebaev (Kielce) to win the VELUX EHF Champions League. Four weeks ago, Vardar's women's team had lost their EHF Champions League Final against Györ after extra-time.

Following the second incredible performance in just 24 hours, the second buzzer-beating goal and the and the second one-goal after their 26:25 against FC Barcelona Lassa on Saturday, the team of coach Raul Gonzalez took the VELUX EHF Champions League trophy.

“Congratulations to my players, they are the best of the world. I am proud of these guys. I don’t want to speak about the game itself, because this is not the right moment to analyze. I only want to say thank you to the players, to the club, to all the people in Macedonia who watched the games. And I want to dedicate that trophy to my family, this is very important for me to say,” Vardar head coach Raul Gonzalez said.

Vardar’s Goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik- match winner and Most Valuable Player of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 2017 (Photo: Michael HEUBERGER, AIPS-Handball Commission)

The final was a thriller like last year, when Kielce beat Veszprem after penalties – and just like in 2016, Ivan Cupic was on the winners’ podium. The Croatian left wing made a whole country jump for joy with his last-second goal. But the match winner was Arpad Sterbik, who was also awarded Most Valuable Player of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 2017 - mainly thanks to his 16 saves in the final against PSG.

Sterbik, who will end his great career with now four Champions League titles and one World Championship trophy (2013 with Spain) after the 2017/18 season, did not expect to receive the MVP award: “I was part of nine Champions League finals or FINAL4 events, I won the trophy four times, but this MVP award is the crowning jewel on my career - it's simply incredible.”

He was emotional when he first received his individual award and then the Champions League trophy. “We functioned as a team - this was the key. All our younger players, who never won a trophy like this before, did a great job. After we had beaten Barcelona I saw in all of our eyes that we are not here to see Cologne, but to win the title,” Sterbik added.

The second award went to Paris' Uwe Gensheimer, who became top scorer of the 2016/17 season with 115 goals, two of them in the final, in which Nikola Karabatic (5 for PSG Handball) and Timur Dibirov (6 for Vardar) were the top scorers. The final win was a deserved one as Vardar were ahead most of the time in the match. The day before, a buzzer-beater by Luka Cindric had propelled the FINAL4 debutants to the final by 26:25 win, right after Paris had eliminated Telekom Veszprem in the first semi. Finally the Hungarian side took the third position, while record winners Barcelona were defeated twice. The whole of FYR Macedonia was gripped by handball fever over the weekend as the nation followed the fate of their top club team.

The event’s TV partner in FYR Macedonia, MRTV, reported a maximum market share of more than 80% for the final and a TV audience of 1 million people. An estimated crowd of some 150,000 also took to the streets to greet the team on their arrival back in Skopje on Tuesday to celebrate what is the country’s greatest sporting achievement. A total of 40 broadcasters beamed the event into the homes of handball fans in more than 80 territories.

AIPS Handball Commission

On the fringes of the event, the AIPS Handball Commission held their traditional meeting and representatives of the commission had intense talks with Presidents of both Federations, Michael Wiederer / EHF and Hassan Mustafa / IHF. An even longer tradition is the ‘media get-together’ in the Cologne-brewery Malzmühle, organized once again by the AIPS, EHF and the City of Cologne. This year, nearly 200 journalists from 13 nations met there.

Results: Semi-finals: Telekom Veszprem - Paris Saint-Germain 26:27 (11:11), HC Vardar Skopje - FC Barcelona 26:25 (13:12). Placement match 3-4: Veszprem - Barcelona 34:30 (18:17), Final: Paris - Skopje 23:24 (12:11)

All-Star-Team of the CL-2016/17-season: Goal: Gonzalo Perez de Vargas (Barcelona); Right wing: Victor Tomas (Barcelona); Right back: Alex Dujshebaev (Skopje); Centre back: Nikola Karabatic (Paris); Left back: Mikkel Hansen (Paris); Left wing: Uwe Gensheimer (Paris); Line player: Ludovic Fabregas (Montpellier); Defender: Luka Karabatic (Paris); Best young player: Nedim Remili (Paris)

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