SEHA league launches its fifth seasonArticle
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FEATURE: Since established in 2011 SEHA Gazprom League brings the best handball in the region for the fifth time, starting on Saturday with 10 teams from seven countries.

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SEHA league launches its fifth season

Formed to match the best leagues in Europe in quality and attractiveness, taking cream of the crop teams from the national championships of Serbia, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Slovakia, Belarus, and most recently Hungary, onto the next level of challenge - SEHA Gazprom League has done well to rival and even outmatch the top-tier quality of Europe’s best leagues in terms of the number of EHF Champions League participants for 2015/16 season.

In addition to last season’s success, having MKB-MVM Veszprem, HC PPD Zagreb and HC Vardar in the VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-final, six teams – Veszpem, Zagreb, Vardar, HC Meshkov Brest, Tatran Presov and Vojvodina will represent SEHA league in the group phase of the European top flight for the upcoming season.

Furthermore, RK Borac Banja Luka will host the qualification tournament over the first September weekend, in attempt to add yet another SEHA league outfit among the Europe’s elite.

As strong as never

Traditionally, SEHA league’s first round throws-off with domestic derbies. HC PPD Zagreb will travel to Osijek, for an encounter with well-known rivals NEXE, while Vojvodina and Vardar will host the newcomers Spartak Vojput and Maks Strumica.

Veselin Vujovic head coach of Zagreb  believes that the newcomers are "on-par with their predecessors Radnicki and Metalurg. The countries they come from have a great handball tradition - but it is no easy task (competing in the SEHA league)."

The first round eye-catcher will however be the clash of the SEHA league titans – Veszprem and Brest, in a reprise of the 2014/15 season’s final.

However, the past season was a display of dominance from Veszprem, as the indomitable presence of the Hungarian side elevated competitive quality among the league’s top flight, to rise above the top six teams at the SEHA Final Tournament in the Veszprem Arena.

The inclusion of the most successful Hungarian side (23 domestic titles), and a two-time VELUX EHF FINAL4 participant was a win-win decision.

Veszprem proved a formidable force in the league’s ranks nurturing their high ambitions in a more competitive league, while at the same time, league-wide top-level signings have bolstered the competition considerably for the upcoming season, in a bid to gun down the defending champions.

The likes of Aron Palmarsson and Ivan Sliskovic joined the defending champions, while Pavel Atman and Dainis Kristopans sealed their moves to HC Meshkov Brest. In addition to that, Jorge Maqueda joined Vardar, while Zagreb strengthened their ranks with no less than five players.

Meanwhile, HC Vojvodina pulled a coup by signing Alexei Rastvortsev.

Commenting on the SEHA league Veselin Vujovic said: "The SEHA league is an excellent project - and a great opportunity for young players to step up their careers, and the competition itself grows stronger each year. Last season’s SEHA Final 4 was a top-level event, similar in quality of the renowned (VELUX EHF) FINAL4 in Cologne."

History in the making

Two-time champion HC Vardar is the SEHA League’s most successful side, having won the competition in 2012 and 2014, finishing as runners-up on one occasion in 2013.

Zagreb briefly interrupted the reign of the Macedonian powerhouse, by lifting the trophy in 2013 after a thrilling (25:24) extra-time win in Skopje, thus forming a regional rivalry, and one of the most anticipated duels in the newly formed league.

Vardar were itching to set the record straight, which they did in 2014 in Novi Sad, to dismay of the two-time runners-up HC Meshkov Brest, who are yet to win the SEHA league champion’s trophy.

The above four sides make the core of the competition, with a five-season long rivalry. Alongside Croatian vice-champions RK NEXE, powerful Slovakian side Tatran Presov and three-time Bosnian champions RK Borac Banja Luka, the seven clubs have been part of the SEHA Gazprom League since its formation in 2011.

The reigning champions Veszprem enter the competition for the second consecutive season, while the four-season tenure of Metalurg has come to an abrupt end, having lost the fight for the second place in Macedonian league to Maks Strumica (formerly known as RK Zomimak).

Glorious past in European handball

Current SEHA league teams climbed to the top of European handball three times in total.

Having won the Champions Cup in 1975/76 (forerunner of VELUX EHF Champions League), RK Borac Banja Luka opened the account, after finishing runners-up one year before in 1974/75.

The same competition then saw two seasons long Zagreb reign in 1991/92 and 1992/93. Later was the last time Zagreb lifted the coveted trophy, however the Croatian powerhouse made it all the way to final in 1994/95, 1996/97, 1997/98 and 1998/99.

Veszprem rose to continent-wide prominence with their EHF Champions League final appearance in 2001/02. Hungarian side found their way back to the final showdown in 2014/15, during their second VELUX EHF FINAL4 final appearance.

Cup Winner’s Cup was equally successful, with three titles, as Veszprem lifted the trophy on two occasions – in 1991/92 and 2007/08, while the same competition was won by Zagreb in 2004/05.

IHF Cup was won by RK Borac Banja Luka once in 1990/91.

TEXT: Nemanja Savic / br / bc