Trilogy of finals defined heroes of the late 90sArticle
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FEATURE: Two protagonists, Ortega and Saracevic recall memories of perhaps the greatest handball duels of all time at the end of the 90s.

Trilogy of finals defined heroes of the late 90s

Carlos Ortega and Zlatko Saracevic are two household names in the world of handball. The Spanish and Croatian greats played against each other in each and every game of the trilogy of EHF Champions League finals, which most remember as some of the greatest duels in the history of the game.

Zlatko Saracevic is a Zagreb legend, who played in all three finals these two handball giants contested in 1990s. His memories from that time are not very positive because Zagreb ended up losing all three clashes but he says that nothing was normal in their final encounters.

“What I remember from these matches is that they were all weird and I mean that when I say it. Nothing was normal in these matches we played against Barcelona in Barcelona or in Zagreb.

Carlos Ortega, winner of all three finals remembers those times vividly. “Those were true battles, not simple handball games. We had the best team in the world but fighting against Zagreb was special from all aspects.”

When life was on hold in Zagreb

Barcelona won all three consecutive finals; what’s more, all games apart from one: the first leg of the 1999 final, which ended in a draw in Zagreb.

“That game was crazy. I remember we arrived in Zagreb and streets were empty. Police closed the traffic and we were driven to the arena with heavy police support all around us. I really felt it was going to be the fiercest game and it proved to be true later,” recalled Ortega.

“I remember when our coach Velimir Kljaic was leading us from the stands but was talking on the phone with his assistant who could barely hear what he was saying. Those matches were just crazy,” Zlatko Saracevic starts his story.

Matches between Zagreb and Barcelona were all really tough. Zagreb always knew they were underdogs and were looking for their chances to beat them in Zagreb.

“I never lost against Zagreb and as far as I can remember I always had great games against them. I always did well when the stakes were high and in those days Barcelona and Zagreb were the best teams in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that,” claims Ortega.

Zagreb the underdogs

“I don’t think we ever thought we were close to beat them. We knew that they were just too good and better than us. We were mad with referees and nothing was right for us but in the end they were better team. We were aware that with the draw we can’t do anything in Barcelona. Matches in Zagreb were a bit tighter and in all three matches in Barcelona we lost in the same manner: we were holding on in the first half and then Barcelona completely outplayed us in second.”

Ortega admits that Barcelona team would have been almost impossible to beat for any opponent. “It was called ‘Dream team’ for a reason. We had the best players in the world and we had Inaki Urdangarin, who always made the difference in times of trouble. I am extremely proud to have been part of that team.”

Saracevic also praises Barcelona’s players who were just too good and Zagreb could not find a way to be better than them.

“They were team with their probably best player Masip and leader on the court. There was also Inaki, we called him ‘Prince’. Besides them also great wingers Ortega and Guijosa and above all of them there was Xepkin, giant in defence, you could not see a goal from him.”

“I referred to those games as war but I must add that there was also great respect for each other. In the heat of the battle you do nasty things sometimes but it is driven by the sense that you have to give your all to beat your fiercest opponents,” concludes Ortega.

TEXT: Bence Martha, Jelena Bagaric / cor