Blagotinsek: “A final tournament is always tricky to play”
When you are born in a handball-crazy city, then it is obvious, which sport you prefer as a kid: handball of course. Blaz Blagotinsek was born in Celje and he was eleven years old when the “Brewers” of Pivovarna Lasko Celje won the EHF Champions League in 2004 - and eight years later, the tall defensive specialist had his debut in the first team.
Blagotinsek became a cornerstone of his club, winning the Slovenian league three times - but like many of his club mates, he went abroad; in 2016, Blagotinsek joined Telekom Veszprém at the age of 22 - and finally became one of the best defenders in the world of handball. Four times the 2017 World Championship bronze medallist made it to the EHF FINAL4 at Cologne, four times he returned without a trophy. Twice (2018/19 and 2019/20) he was awarded best defender of the EHF Champions League.
Then he announced he was to leave Veszprém at the end of the 2022/23 season to make his dream of playing in the German Bundesliga come true by joining SG Flensburg-Handewitt. But this dream came true even earlier; already in August 2022, he left Veszprém to sign for one season at Frisch Auf Göppingen, to replace his injured compatriot Vid Poteko. “I loved to get this experience of playing in Germany. Though the start at Göppingen was not perfect, it was a great season for me, and I hope to finish on a high.”
Next weekend, Blagotinsek will have his international farewell for the four-time EHF Cup winners, coincidentally at his future home, Flensburg, at the EHF Finals, where Göppingen will face surprise package BM Granollers in the semi-final of the European League. "Right at the beginning of the season, Granollers and us could not expect to make it all the way to the EHF Finals, but now we are there, and like the two other semi-finalists Berlin and Montpellier, we deserve to be there,” says the 29-year-old 2.02-metre tall defence expert.
Blagotinsek describes his first and last season at Göppingen as a roller-coaster ride, “We had so many ups and downs. In the European League we played really strong and made a really great job, but in German league, we are below expectations and have many problems. But now we are at the EHF Finals, which is highly important for the players, the club and everybody at Göppingen.” In the Bundesliga, Frisch Auf only is in 14th position of 18 teams, on the other hand, they are the only EHF Finals participant which won all their knock-out matches in the Last 16 and quarter-finals having finished second in a tough group and after eliminating former EHF Cup winners TBV Lemgo already in qualification.
Having in mind that Granollers eliminated EHF Finals host SG Flensburg-Handewitt, Blagotinsek is aware of a high hurdle to be jumped: “A final tournament is always tricky to play, I know it from playing at Veszprém. Sometimes the underdog wins the trophy, you never know what happens in this format. It is all about the daily form and the x-factor. At this stage of the competition, there is definitely no weak team anymore. But it is our advantage that we had two weeks without any domestic match and could concentrate and focus only on Granollers. We will fight to win the semi and to win the trophy, but you never know.”
In general, Blagotinsek is happy to face Granollers, as Göppingen have duelled many times with Berlin in the Bundesliga and had locked horns with Montpellier already in the group stage of the European League.
Thanks to Blagotinsek, Göppingen (alongside Füchse Berlin) have the best defence of the competitors with an average of 27.4 conceded goals. “But it is not about me, I am not the one to tell the others what they have to do. I always play for the team’s success, and we have guys like Josip Sarac and Kresimir Kozina, who are really strong defenders. Success is always a product of a team, not a single player.”
And in general, he loves to be among those “Balkan Boys” at Göppingen with three Croatians (Kozina, Sarac and goalkeeper Marin Sego) and three Slovenians (Poteko, Jaka Malus and him); “We have the same mentality, we know how to fight. And we are called to be ‘tough’ players. I think we fit well in this group at Göppingen. I really appreciate this season at Göppingen.”