The Whitsun weekend’s carnival of seven European club tournaments begins on Thursday with Sveti Ivan Zelina, Croatia welcoming the men’s EuroHockey Club Challenge I.
The event will be live-streamed via www.eurohockeytv.org with the tournament featuring eight clubs fighting for promotion for their country up to Trophy level.
Hosts HK Zelina, KS Pomorzanin (Poland), Lithuania’s Siauliai Ginstrekte SSG and Hungary’s Soroksári – Olcote HC occupy Pool A while Italy’s Polisportiva Ferrini Cagliari ASD, Grammarians from Gibraltar, Slovenia’s HK Lipovci and Portugal’s AD Lousada are in Pool B.
The top two in each group will go on to contest a final on Sunday while the bottom two will have a playoff to try and avoid relegation.
Here’s the lowdown on each of the teams:
Sveti Ivan Zelina (Men) – EuroHockey Club Challenge I
HK Zelina (CRO) – pictured above
The Croatian host club are all set for a busy end to the season, qualifying for the final four in their domestic championship with a few games to spare as well as reaching the Croatian Cup final, meaning lots of prizes to play for.
Key to their charge will be striker Mario Ilinović who has six goals in three prior Euro tournaments while Under-18 stars Ivan Šoić and Bruno Hrupec will likely have an impact.
Captain Mihael Posavec says of their hosting: “Our main goal is to secure a position in Challenge I and, specifically, not to be relegated. But we aim for the promotion places regardless of if we are missing important players who are injured.
“As captain, I have a good feeling because I see a team working hard in every practice. And I hope the home crowd will give us a push for the promotion.”
They are buoyed, too, by their incredible silver medal at the indoor Club Cup in 2022 in Alanya, in so doing becoming the first club of any sporting code from the region to hit such heights. Their best outdoor result was fifth in the 2017 Challenge I.
Siauliai Ginstrekte SSG (LTU)
Siauliai city’s sport club “Ginstrektė” became Lithuanian men’s champion for the first time in 2022 and they arrive in Croatia with a young team with a lot of ambition and is highly motivated..
Nine of the panel play for the Lithuanian national team and this season sees the team stand in first place in their national competition and already with a ticket assured for the finals.
The wider panel of 21 players all hail from Lithuania with 10 teenagers in the line-up, showing their strong recent developments. Four of the side have played in European club tournaments before with Zuvedra Tauras, namely captain Mantvydas Pocevicius, Arnas Ridlauskas, Povilas Sinkevičius and Edmundas Liukimas.
KS Pomorzanin Torun (POL)
The Polish Super League runners-up are preparing for their seventh European outdoor tournament having played in the Euro Hockey League on four occasions, the Club Champions Cup in 1991 and – most recently – the 2021 Club Trophy in Vienna.
They come into the tournament off the back of a 7-1 away win over UKH Start 1954 Gniezno, a result that keeps them in mathematical contention for the league top spot, three points behind WKS Grunwald Poznan. They are assured of a playoff place already.
Wojciech Rutkowski and Dawid Popowski are part of the Polish national squad; Dmytro Luppa has a wealth of know-how from his hockey travels with HC Minsk, OKS SHVSM Vinnitsa and SDUSHOR Minsk. Patryk Karamuz has played for Zelina before in the Challenge I in 2017.
Soroksári – Olcote HC (HUN)
Hungarian champions are looking to continue their year-on-year rise in European competition, dating back to 2018 when they won the EuroHockey Club Challenge IV in Helsinki. A year later, they were third in Challenge III and – after the Covid break – they were third in Challenge II in 2021.
Last year, they ended their debut season in Challenge I with a seventh place finish and they have another chance this year to move on a step. Nine of the wider panel have been part of each step of that journey with captain Tamás Suba crucial.
This season, the goals have been shared around with Zsombor Ficzere, Adam Szuchy, Sebastian Léber and András Zsoldos all prolific.
They shared top spot after the regular season in Hungary with Épitõk on 22 points but they did lose for the first time in the competition last weekend to their rivals 3-0. Both will contest the Final 4 phase of the season in two weekends.
Grammarians HC (GIB)
Grammarians travel to Croatia in good spirits having recently been crowned league champions for the second year running in Gibraltar.
They have a balanced side with Eric Abudarham Jr and the Ramagge brothers Carl and Shane having well over 100 Eurohockey club games combined between them and captain Jorgen Haveland and goalkeeper Joseph Borg have plenty of experience too.
At the other end of the spectrum, they have players competing for the first time who they are looking forward to see how they develop at this level.
It is their 32nd European campaign which saw them play in the European Cup twice (1987 and 1997), ten times in the Trophy, three times in Challenge I and then much of the last decade in Challenge II with eight appearances. They also played in numerous Cup Winners Cup and Trophy events. Their last time in Challenge I was in 2014 when they ended seventh.
AD Lousada (POR)
AD Lousada are another club flying high off the back of a national championship as they won the Portuguese title in dramatic fashion last weekend. They had fallen 2-1 to Casa Pia in the first leg of the final before bouncing back to win game two 8-2 with six second half goals making the difference.
Among their solid spine of the team are goalkeeper André Romariz, defenders Miguel Romariz and Carlos Almeida, midfielder José Santos – who scored 18 goals in 15 games this season – and captain Ricardo Teixeira leading the line, netting 14 times. Teixeira says “winning is in our blood”.
They are looking to get back to Trophy level where they finished third in 2022 in Paris. During the group stages, Lousada will meet HK Lipovci whom they defeated 6-2 in 2019 in Challenge II.
HK Lipovci (SLO)
The 28-time Slovenian outdoor champions have won at this Challenge I level twice before, picking up victory in Zagreb in 2006 to add to a 2004 success in Brest, Belarus.
Among their number, they have two Pakistani players with strong backgrounds. Muhammad Ateeq played for Dinamo Kazan in 2010 and 2011 while Muhammas Abubaker competed with Azerbaijan’s Atasport in the Trophy a couple of times.
They currently sit in second place in the Slovenian championship but have two games in hand on leaders Triglav Predanovci who have completed their series of fixtures; win both and they will end level on points.
Polisportiva Ferrini Cagliari ASD (ITA)
Italian cup winners Polisportiva Ferrini Cagliari ASD are looking to back up their gold medal from last year’s Challenge II event in Copenhagen in what was their men’s European debut.
Fourteen of last season’s panel are available once more from a side who were hugely impressive, scoring 18 goals in their four games and only conceding in their final against Gaziantep Polisgücü.
The panel features Argentinean players Lucas Perez and Leandro Ojeda – who was the 2022 player of the tournament, netting seven goals – along with Egypt’s Mohamed Hussein. Otherwise, the side has a youthful element with five teenagers.
In their domestic league, they are currently in a share of second place with HC Bra, three points behind HP Valchisone whom they beat 4-0 a fortnight ago.