On Tuesday night in Varazdin, Slovenia kept their chances for a semi-final berth open when they defeated EHF EURO 2016 runners-up Spain by five goals. The World Championship 2017 bronze medallists were led to victory by a relative newcomer to the team – 21-year-old Urh Kastelic, the youngest goalkeeper at the EHF EURO 2018.
In what was his EHF EURO debut, Kastelic was key in Slovenia’s strong game. In the first half, the keeper saved eight shots at 42 per cent, finishing with 36 per cent when he left the court late in the second period. His performance earned him the player of the match award.
An important win, a superb individual performance, player of the match and a full arena of mostly Slovenia supporters – could his EHF EURO debut possibly have been better?
“Of course not. It was really amazing. I didn’t expect such a beautiful game,” Kastelic told ehf-euro.com after the match. “It was hard – we had three days after losing against Denmark, it was hard to motivate ourselves. The coach [Veselin Vujovic] in all trainings was very angry because we were all down. When we played today, I felt after 10 minutes that we could win. With great fans, and this defence, it was really easy to do my job.”
Like playing at home
Kastelic only joined the starting line-up on Tuesday, replacing Urban Lesjak on the list of 16. Coming in at a crucial moment for Slovenia, when they needed a victory to keep their semi-final chances alive and starting the match in goal for his team, there was some pressure on the HC PPD Zagreb player.
“I didn’t know that I would start until the meeting before the match. At first, I was a little nervous, and then I said: It is a really big chance,” said Kastelic.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever have a chance to play a championship so close to Slovenia. It really feels like we are playing at home. I had to take this chance.”
“There are chances, we are believing”
Slovenia entered the EHF EURO 2018 as a favourite for the medals, after they claimed the bronze at the World Championship 2017 in France, exactly one year ago. The team had some hard luck in the preliminary round, with the difference between them bringing one or four points to the next stage a matter of only three goals.
Their campaign began with a one-goal defeat to FYR Macedonia, followed by a 25:25 draw against Germany that the EHF EURO 2016 champions secured with a penalty after the whistle. In the final match of the preliminary round, Slovenia defeated Montenegro to book their place in main round Group II in Varazdin.
Once again, in the main round their opening loss was a devastatingly close one, as 2016 Olympic champions won 31:28 after a tight contest all the way through. But Slovenia recovered and now retain a mathematical, albeit slim, chance to reach the medal round. Kastelic fears that the odds of everything falling into place – a win for Slovenia, a loss or draw between FYR Macedonia and Denmark, and a draw between Spain and Germany – are narrow, “but still there are chances, we are believing.”
“You learn more when you lose”
Kastelic is new to the senior national team but already has a collection of medals, including gold at 2013 European Youth Olympic Festival and 2014 Youth Olympic Games, silver at the 2015 Youth World Championship – where he finished as top-ranked goalkeeper, and bronze on his debut with the senior side at the World Championship 2017 in France.
He is part of a strong generation of Slovenia players that includes the likes of Blaz Janc – already an important member of the senior team, and Celje’s Jaka Malus and Gal Marguc. At the beginning of the 2017/18 season, Kastelic joined VELUX EHF Champions League side HC PPD Zagreb, where he has had some disappointing results – but important lessons:
“I learned a lot, especially because we played not really well in Zagreb. We had some bad results. I think you learn more when you lose than when you win. I took a lot from these losses, I learned a lot, and I think it helps me now,” said Kastelic.
On Wednesday, Slovenia will meet Czech Republic in their final main round match, with everything to play for.
“Czech Republic showed after the first game, when I think they lost by 17 goals – in the second game they took their chance and won against Denmark, who thought they would get an easy win. Then again, against Germany, they also showed a really good game,” said Kastelic.
“I think it will be a really hard game, but I hope we will play like today [against Spain] and we will win.”