O'Callaghan: Any club from EHF Finals could play a role in the Champions League
Xavi O'Callaghan was a Barcelona legend as a player; he won the EHF Champions League title five times with the golden generation and was one of the big stars of Spanish handball. After his active career, he remained connected to his club, was manager of the handball department and then represented the entire club in the New York office. Today he is the President of Forum Club Handball and a member of the EHF Executive Committee.
In this EHF function, the Spaniard was at the EHF Finals Men in Flensburg last weekend. In this interview with eurohandball.com, he talks about the development of European club handball, but also about the tournament in Flensburg.
As a Spaniard, you must have particularly enjoyed the performances by finalists Fraikin BM Granollers in Flensburg?
Xavi O'Callaghan: Granollers had a really great season. They have achieved much more than they were given credit for. It's great for this club - and it's a great thing for handball that there was an international final at the end of the European League.
You mention that for a long time there has been no German-Spanish final in the European League and the EHF Cup...
Xavi O'Callaghan: Spain and Germany are of course top nations, but the current competitions also show that handball is now much more widespread across Europe and that's better for everyone. Granollers' performance is a good signal for handball that there is a wide variety of successful nations and clubs.
For the first time, the hosts did not qualify for the final tournament, but the stands were well occupied. How do you rate the event from this perspective?
Xavi O'Callaghan: It was great to see so many fans in the arena. One might have been afraid of playing in an empty arena or that there would be little audience interest if the hosts were not on the court. But it was a great event and especially the fans from Granollers created a great atmosphere and they even cleaned up their grandstand after the semi-finals, which was really nice to see. The many Berlin fans also offered a great picture and were a good enrichment. The event pointed out that EHF Finals can be organised without the host participating, which is very good news for handball.
Do you agree that the gap between the Champions League and the European League isn't as big as it was a few years ago?
Xavi O'Callaghan: That's right, the gap is getting smaller, the competition in the European League is getting stronger, like already at the last EHF Finals in 2022 in Lisbon. SC Magdeburg lost the final against Benfica, but even then, Magdeburg were actually a Champions League team in terms of quality, and now they are at the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne, proving that the European League is closer to the Champions League. Any club taking part in the EHF Finals could also play a good role in the Champions League. The European League is a perfect competition if you want to make it to the Champions League.
In the new season, the European League will be played in a new system with a second group phase. What are the reasons?
Xavi O'Callaghan: The first aim is to expand the competition to allow more clubs from more countries to take part, but at the same time we want to ensure that you have consistent matches at the highest level. This competition is proof of the very good cooperation between the clubs and the EHF. The EHF office developed a game system with a large variety of clubs, but which also ensures many top games for the top teams.
How do you rate the cooperation between the EHF and Forum Club Handball in general?
Xavi O'Callaghan: We have the same goals, we want to develop handball and we think in the same direction as the EHF, there are no problems.
The next highlight on German soil is the TruckScout24 EHF FINAL4 in Cologne. Which team do you expect to be on the podium this year?
Xavi O'Callaghan: The event in Cologne is always unpredictable. As every year, any team can win there, we only have top clubs on board. It will be a very interesting highlight of the season. No one knows beforehand what's going to happen and that's what makes Cologne so special. That uncertainty is what clubs and spectators want, it's a perfect scenario.
The side events in Cologne include the European Handball Talks, a networking event for different stakeholders. How difficult is it to position handball in Europe?
Xavi O'Callaghan: The European Handball Talks are a good idea to bring business closer to handball. These kind of initiatives are really good to develop our sport, to bring new ideas, to bring interesting people together with handball. In general it's a good idea to promote handball in Europe. And the EHF FINAL4 is the perfect platform.
The Forum Club Handball also always holds its annual meeting in Cologne – which topics are at the top of the agenda this year?
Xavi O'Callaghan: There is nothing specific on the agenda, we are talking about the latest developments. However, it is very positive that every season the number of clubs participating in the meeting increases. There they get the information they need for the future and know what is going on. This strengthens the cooperation between the clubs and helps everyone to go in the same direction. We are really proud of this after more than 15 years of cooperation with the EHF. It's perfect that we were able to keep increasing the number of participants in Cologne.