Pungartnik’s trip down memory lane to the very beginning
On 29 August 1993, 24 years ago to the day, the EHF Champions League’s very first match was played in the Macedonian city of Bitola, featuring Pelister Bitola and Slovenian champions Celje Pivovarna Laško, featuring a 22-year-old Roman Pungartnik.
The “Mladost” sports hall was a famously difficult place to play as fans literally hung from the stands and knew how to put pressure on their guests. If a club unused to the atmosphere were to arrive that afternoon, perhaps Pelister would have the honour of winning the competition’s first battle. However, Celje had the necessary experience and knew what to expect.
Motorcycle in the hall
“That hall had a reputation for being one of the most hostile for visiting teams. When we played there previously, there was a fan who used to drive into the hall with his motorcycle. Imagine that. Of course, something like that was not allowed in the Champions League,” Roman Pungartnik, who was the joint-top scorer that day for Celje with six goals, recalls fondly over two decades later.
“I do not actually remember any important details of the match, but I do remember that back then the shorts we used to wear had a back pocket and I remember we used to pull it a lot that day in Bitola when defending, especially on the six metre line, where referees could not see it.”
Pelister, a club which introduced to the sport superstars such Pepi Manaskov and Kiril Lazarov, gave everything to win the first of two elimination round games and led by two goals at the break.
Celje then fought back in the second half to claim a 23:22 victory, which they followed up with a 28:24 win at home a week later. The Slovenian champions went on to win two more rounds before exiting the competition at the group stage, where only the two top teams TEKA Santander and ABC Braga moved on to the final.
Eleven years later, Celje beat SG Flensburg-Handewitt to become the first side not from Germany or Spain to claim the EHF Champions League trophy.
Roman Pungartnik chased the success with several clubs as a player. With Celje he reached the semi-finals five times in a row, before moving on to the German Bundesliga and enjoying spells with clubs such as Kiel, Hamburg and Gummersbach, but never won the competition.
“The first decade of the competition belonged to Spain, especially Barcelona, and then there were clubs like Celje, Zagreb and Veszprem, all of whom put in a lot of effort on and off the court to win it.
“There were actually no financial differences between the top clubs, east and west. When the Germans became really interested European success, that changed things a lot.”
Strength spread around the continent
The face of the competition has changed greatly since the 1993/94 season, which featured 35 clubs from 34 nations competing mostly in knockout ties. This coming VELUX EHF Champions League season, the 25th edition, will feature 28 elite clubs competing in a format which has delivered countless clashes between Europe’s heavyweights since its inception two years ago.
“It is great today when we see so many big clubs, and by big I mean financially, all over the continent. That is certainly the strongest side of this competition.
“I think it should stay a rather open league. It is always much more interesting if you have clubs from all over Europe, national champions and from the strongest leagues also other top clubs competing for the trophy.
“It is also good that there are some different options being discussed, so that the EHF strives to improve the competition in all dimensions,” concludes Pungartnik.Author: Uroš Volk / cor