June 2, 2023
by J. Schuetz
Three of the 2022 women’s Champions League finalists made their way back to the pinnacle event in club handball – the EHF FINAL4, in Budapest.
On June 3-4, 2023, Gyor AUDI ETO will meet the defending champions from Kristiansand while Team Esbjerg will face the newcomer to the party FTC Rail Cargo – the team from Budapest.
Ever since the inaugural event back in 2014, the women’s EHF Champions League FINAL4 has progressed steadily and even the cancellation of the 2020 edition due to the Covid pandemic could not derail the rise of what has become one of – if not the best and most entertaining indoor sports event in Europe.
A bold move
In 2022 the EHF decided to take the next step in the advancement of women’s handball and moved the annual spectacle from the tried and tested Laszlo Papp Arena to Budapest’s MVD Dome. A brand new facility with a seating capacity in excess of 20.000.
A bold move and not free from risk after the experience in 2021, when only 2.300 spectators found their way to Laszlo Papp Arena, to witness the final match between Brest Bretagne Handball and Vipers Kristiansand. Covid was still lingering and many decided to watch the event from the comfort of their home.
Twelve months later the organizers from the EHF saw a dramatic reversal for the better. A record crowd of 15.400 celebrated the back-to-back champions from Kristiansand on the final day and 2023 may well surpass the previous high-water mark.
History in the making?
Not the least because of the attendance of the hometown club, FTC Rail Cargo. Nicknamed “Fradi” the team never won the competition and made it to the final game only on two occasions, all the way back in 1971 and 2002.
After a rocky start in the 2022/23 EHF Champions League season, marked by a 40:20 loss against the German champions, SG Bietigheim, FTC appear to have regained their footing at the right time.
The impressive win of the 2023 Hungarian Cup “Magyar Kupa” against Gyor AUDI ETO and the dramatic turn around in the 2nd leg match of the Champions League quarterfinal against Metz HB, when FTC recovered a six-goal deficit from a week earlier, are testament to a resilient squad who won’t quit.
Can a near capacity crowd push FTC to the limit and possibly all the way to a FINAL4 win?
In this year’s semifinal the squad of head coach, Gabor Elek, will meet the representative from Denmark – Team Esbjerg.
To improve their odds the Danes signed six-time Champions League winner, Nora Mork, at the beginning of 2022/23 season.
The Norwegian All-star, who has suffered as many as ten knee injuries throughout her career, is the embodiment of resilience and unrelenting will power – invaluable character traits when competing for the crown in women’s club handball.
Mork aside, line player and defense specialist, Kathrine Heindahl is yet another reason why Esbjerg’s Champions League run may go further in 2023 compared to the fourth place finish in the previous year.
Add “Super” Henny Reistad, Vilde Ingstad, Kristine Breistol, Mette Tranborg and Sanna Solberg-Isaksen to the mix and Team Esbjerg certainly looks like a more formidable contender compared to the team of 2022.
If there is a soft spot in the lineup it may be found between the goal posts, where Esbjerg’s head coach, Jesper Jensen, has been relying on Anna Kristensen and Amalie Milling in the absence of the more experienced German international, Dinah Eckerle (pregnancy).
For sure, their skills and nerves will be tested on handball’s biggest stage.
In the other semifinal, Gyor AUDI ETO will look for revenge for the 2022 loss against Vipers Kristiansand, while the defending champions aim for a third consecutive EHF Champions League trophy.
Already Kristiansand wrote handball history after the success in the 2022 FINAL4, becoming the first Norwegian team to win the EHF Champions League two years in a row.
Whoever thought that after the departure of right-back, Nora Mork, Vipers would be severely weakened had to change their mind quickly after the arrival of yet another world class player – Russian super star, Anna Vyakhireva.
Following the Champions League loss in the 2022 final against Vipers, Gyor also took steps to reinforce the squad and two names stick out: Sandra Toft in goal, the Dane joined from Brest Bretagne and Slovenian star, Ana Gros on the right-back position.
Add to it the return of line player Kari Brattset Dale and Gyor looks poised to climb on Europe’s handball throne once again before, head coach, Ambros Martin, leaves the club to lead the Spanish national team.
Gyor AUDI ETO
In the past Gyor AUDI ETO were the odds-on favorites for various reasons. First the club always managed to assemble a world-class squad and secondly because of the exceptional coaching of the aforementioned, Ambros Martin. Collectively, they delivered no less than five EHF Champions League titles between 2013 and 2019.
Then came Covid and the winning streak of the Hungarian record champions came to an end. In the 2021 FINAL4, the two players who led Gyor to unprecedented success – Anita Gorbicz and Eduarda “Duda” Amorim – retired with a bronze medal instead of gold.
Since then, the team of Gyor still represent the best-of-the best when considering the individual players, but at home league rival, FTC, defeated them in two consecutive Hungarian cup finals (2022 and 2023), while winning the Hungarian championship in 2021.
In February 2022, Gyor’s epic Champions League streak of 70 unbeaten matches came to an end and in September of the same year, Metz HB defeated the Hungarians at Audi Arena, after almost seven years since the last loss on home court.
In short – Gyor no longer is the dominant “winning machine” in women’s handball they used to be.
Can Anne-Mette Hansen & Co. turn things around in the 2023 EHF Champions League FINAL4?
The rise of Vipers Kristiansand at the EHF Champions League FINAL4 began in 2019, when the team of head coach, Ole Gjekstad, won the bronze medal for the first time.
Two gold medals followed (2021 and 2022) and in 2023, the defending champions must be considered the front-runner, considering the experience and overall quality of the squad around Russian handball player extraordinaire, Anna Vyakhireva and the legendary Katrine Lunde in goal.
For Team Esbjerg it will be the second appearance at the EHF Champions League FINAL4.
After finishing fourth in 2022, head coach, Jesper Jensen targets a different outcome and Nora Mork may well be the player who can lead her teammates to new highs.
Two victories in the Champions League quarterfinal against CSM Bucuresti only underscore the upward trend of the team from the west-coast of Denmark.
And, then there is FTC Railcargo. The freshly minted Hungarian cup winners participate for the first time in the EHF Champions League FINAL4 after eliminating the dominant Champions League contender of the 2022/23 season – Metz HB.
Trailing by six goals after the first leg of the quarterfinals, the Hungarians reversed their fortune and beat the French champions on the road 33:26.
Aside from a very talented squad, FTC sports several extraordinary experienced players. Among them the two Serbians, Andrea Lekic and line player, Dragana Cvijic, who have been there (i.e. the FINAL4) before.
Lekic already won the EHF Champions League in 2013, when she was in Gyor and Cvijic achieved the same success twice with ZRK Buducnost in 2012 and 2015.
The crowd at Budapest’s MVM Dome and momentum are two, yet important factors, which may lift the team to unprecedented highs on homecourt.
Semifinals – June 3, 2023
15:15 h. Gyor AUDI ETO – Vipers Kristiansand
18:00 h. FTC Railcargo – Team Esbjerg