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EHF Champions League

This is Me: Carlos Ortega

When you've won all there is to win who else do you turn to win it all over again? In Barça's case, who better than a man who's won all there is to win? The Spanish giants turned to legendary Carlos Ortega this summer after Xavier Pascual waved goodbye to 12 trophy-filled years at Palau Blaugrana. Here, in his own words in our first This is Me of the season, Carlos explains his road back to Barça and reveals how he intends to try and improve a team that won all 20 EHF Champions League matches last season...

This is Me: Carlos Ortega

A coach's dream

Handball is my life. I only played for two clubs in my whole career: BM Malaga and FC Barcelona.

At Malaga we were a group of boys. Friends from school, crazy for handball. We were a young team. We were successful. We managed to win promotion to the first league, but then as usual, some of us received offers from bigger clubs. Me? Well I made my way to FC Barcelona, a decision, which imprinted the rest of my life.

There, we were the best and the most successful team in the history of handball. We created a legacy in our sport, and sport has had the same effect on my life.

For me it was absolutely obvious that after my playing days were over that I would become a coach. In my last two seasons at Barcelona I had already started studying sports and began taking my coaching license. I got my first experience in the under-14 team at Barcelona, and when finally a knee injury ended my career for good, after 11 wonderful years at Barcelona, I could immediately begin my new life as a handball coach.

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I am from Malaga and I love this place. But Barcelona is like my second home. Even in those times later in my career when I was abroad. This club and this city formed my life, and I am so happy to be back now. And of course, my long-time coach Valero Rivera left a lasting impression on my life. It was the same at Malaga, with Juan Fernandez as coach.

I learnt so many things from those two, but still every coach tries to pick the best from others and then have his own style and philosophy in terms of tactics and mentality.

So, as I embarked on my coaching career, I went back to the Malaga region and took over second division team Antequera. Antequera reminded me so much of Malaga: a little club, a small, intimate arena always full of fans, an impressive atmosphere; simply a place which lived and breathed handball. During my six-year spell there I steered the club to the Asobal league. That was the catalyst for my journey through Europe, taking in Veszprem, Kolding and Hannover-Burgdorf.

All of this came at a time when I coached the Japanese national team, qualifying for the 2017 World Championship in France. I hoped to coach at a host of Olympic Games. However, things changed, the Japanese federation told me in spring 2017 that they wanted to have a full-time coach who could only care of the team. They turned to Icelander Dagur Sigurdsson. Funnily enough, Dagur’s successor at the German national team became my successor at Hannover-Burgdorf, Christian Prokop.

Moving around was – and is not – easy when you have a family and four kids. We always moved together. This is the golden rule of our family. It meant I chose my clubs only in cities, where my children could learn at international schools. The wellbeing of my family and the education of my children were as important as the club. Over the past decade our family bond strengthened every year.

When we arrived at Veszprem, none of the children spoke English and my language skills were limited. Now, even though our main language at home is Spanish, my kids speak English better than Spanish. And they’re even fluent in German.

I am a happy dad as all of them are interested in team sport. Two play handball, but I would never push them to become professional players. Team sport is important for the development on and off the court, no matter how good you are. My children are sporty and that is good enough for me. Now the younger ones have started their next chapter in their new school at Barcelona.

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It was, of course, something very special for me to return to the club that gave me so much as a player. It is a great feeling to be back. I searched for a house and a school; it was a bit stressful in July, as I only had two weeks to prepare everything. But, finally, we made it and were ready for our summer holiday. For 20 days we could relax. This year we stayed in Malaga. Usually we split the holiday between Malaga and Santander in the north, where my wife comes from.

When I came back to Barcelona it was great to see many of my old teammates of the golden generation still involved at the club. Like Xavier O’Callaghan as manager of the handball department, Enric Masip, who works closely with the club president, or of course my new assistant and goalkeeper coach Tomas Svensson.

Some people still remember my face when I meet them in the streets of Barcelona – although those major successes including our five straight EHF Champions League victories are more than 20 years ago. When I look back on those times, Palau Blaugana was a fortress: no team ever managed to conquer our famous arena – and it was always sold-out. It was tradition that the core players of our team had the motto Més que un club – “More than a club” – in their hearts. We all stayed together for more than a decade, without major changes in our team.

It was a different time, maybe better, maybe not – but this is past, we need a new focus on the here and now. When you are appointed as Barça’s coach you must win all trophies, especially the EHF Champions League. This is my pressure and my motivation. The main objective of the season is to make it all the way to Cologne and then to raise the trophy in the end.

Barça are in a state of transition at the moment. Six players left, including legendary Raul Entrerrios, who was like an extended arm of the coach on court. Our squad may not be as deep as those of our rivals, but we are the hunted after Barça made it to the winner’s podium in June.

With the departure of Lionel Messi, I hope that handball can now get a bit closer to football, but everybody knows that in Spain, and mainly in Barcelona, football is the clear number 1, followed by basketball. But, as handball had been FCB’s only sport to win the Champions League last season, the significance has grown. I hope that we can remain on this way in front of a constantly sold-out Palau Blaugrana.

Barça had a perfect season in 2020/21, winning all matches in all competitions. Chapeau. Especially given the circumstances with Covid-19 and the related financial situation of the global sports. It was anything but easy.

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Many journalists asked me whether it was my career plan to go abroad and then finally return to Barcelona. I always smiled, as you cannot have a plan like this. Being a coach is a short-term business: you plan for one or two seasons, you present your strategy to a club. If you are successful, you can stay longer. If you do not reach the objectives, you have to leave earlier. I know this business, so I know that you definitely cannot plan 10 years ahead.

I was extremely surprised, happy, proud and pleased when Barça contacted me to ask if I wanted to become their coach. When I was a Barcelona player, I honestly never thought I would have the chance to become the coach of this team.

I know that with this team you can win any trophy in the world of handball. But I also know that this job is an extreme challenge for me. Barça is the biggest club in the world, it is the biggest job in club handball. I know the pressure, but I put this pressure on my shoulders when I signed this contract.

As the preparation was quite short due to Olympic Games, and as the team was extremely successful last season, there is not that much I want to change immediately. On a longer approach there are things I would like to adapt to my style. But if a team scored almost an average of 40 goals in a match I wouldn’t stop them from running if they want to run. When you score 40 goals in every match, you are rarely going to lose.

I want to contribute many things in my new job, but parallel to this we must win our matches. It feels good to have experienced players on court, like our new team captain Gonzalo Perez de Vargas. He will be the clear number 1 between the posts after an impressive season – highlighted at the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne and at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Plus, we have creative players such as Luka Cindric or Dika Mem, who are definite game-changers.

Being back at Barça means life comes full circle. I am closer to my old friends from school and my first club at Malaga. I will see them more often after we always stayed in contact. Those teammates became friends for life. As I said at the start: handball is my life.

 

Carlos Ortega
September 2021

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