Raúl Entrerríos didn’t know what was going on around him. In three weeks he will be 39 years old and he will probably have been on the field for the last time at a European championship. He played his first European Championship 16 years ago, but the captain of the Spanish national handball team didn’t have time to look back. Entrerrios looked around the Tele2 arena in Stockholm and tried to understand the present. “I can’t believe this moment. It’s great to see this triumph with these guys,” said the backcourt player, who has won all major titles with FC Barcelona in the past ten years. He already celebrated the European Championship victory with the Spaniards in Croatia two years ago, but now the success tasted even sweeter.
The Spanish handball players defended the European Championship title in a dramatic final against Croatia by 22:20 (12:11). In 2018, the victory had already been celebrated as the last high of a large Spanish team, but the story repeated itself – and the heroes were still the same as in the success two years earlier: In the final in Stockholm there were 13 players who had already passed through a 29:23 against Sweden who had won the European Championship. In addition to Entrerrios (38), Julen Aguinagalde (37), Daniel Sarmiento, Viran Morros (both 36), Gedeón Guardiola (35) and Joan Cañellas (33) are in the autumn of their careers. Overall, the Spaniards, at 31.2, were the oldest squad in this European Championship on average – the old Spaniards of 2018 have become the even older Spaniards in 2020. With cleverness and a special motivation, the Iberians prevailed.
A trauma as a drive
Finally, there was a special drive to win this title because the European champion is directly qualified for the Olympic Games. The Spaniards were in the European Championship final in 2016, lost in Krakow to an unleashed German team, had to play in an Olympic qualifying tournament – and failed dramatically. “That was the worst defeat in my career,” said defense specialist Gedeon Guardiola, recalling the crucial match that his colleagues and he hadn’t even lost. The Spaniards had to win in the last duel of a group of four against Sweden with three goals difference to make the qualification perfect. The Iberians were 25:21 in front three minutes before the end, but only won 25:23 in the end. “For many of us, Tokyo is the last chance at the Olympic Games,” said Guardiola, who is the only Spaniard to play in the Bundesliga and is under contract with the Rhein-Neckar Löwen. The qualifying trauma hung in their heads and only the European Championship title was able to avert another drama.
Economical use of power
On the way to the European title and the direct Olympic qualification, the Spaniards questioned the development of handball. For some years now, the trend of the sport has been moving towards speed. The tempo game is modern and the Norwegians are hailed as a prime example who want to wear their opponents down with quick sprints. The Scandinavians run more and faster than their opponents, trying to tire them in order to get their own goals quickly and easily. Thanks to the perfect use of the so-called “Fast Middle”, the Norwegians have developed into a top team, finished third in the European Championship and previously runner-up twice. But it wasn’t enough for big titles, unlike the Spaniards.
The team at Jordi Ribera opted for a different game concept. When the defense won the ball, the outside sprinted forward and hoped for goals in counterattack, but the other players did not play at speed. Given the age of the top performers, it would not have been wise to waste energy this way. The Spaniards, by the way very similar to the final opponents Croatia, rely on a well-known and proven tactic. The focus was on strong and flexible coverage. Either an aggressive 5 + 1 variant should create stress for the opponent or a 6-0 formation should not reveal any gaps. In the attack, the Iberians relied on the individual quality of Entrerrios, Sarmiento, Aguinagalde, Canellas or Alex Dujshebaev, who is the only service provider in the back area not yet over the age limit of 30 years.
Goal Olympic medal
In a few months Entrerrios and a few of his fellow campaigners will end their international careers. Before that, however, the old men have a big goal in mind: an Olympic medal. In 2016 the Iberians were not qualified, in 2012 they failed in London in the quarter-finals at 22:23 due to the later Olympic champion France. The Spaniards are aiming for precious metals in Tokyo – and will forego speed handball on the way there.