Plaza: “Greece has been my second home”
Born and bred in Ciudad Real, a city that used to live and breathe handball, it was nearly impossible for Ignacio Plaza not to take up the sport.
But if you asked the towering line player, who stands at 195 cm tall, whether he would take his talent and improve a team in Greece in the prime of his career, the answer was a resounding no.
Yet here is Plaza in his third season with Greek champions AEK Athens HC, with his best-ever performances in European competition, scoring 31 goals in nine games in the EHF European League Men, the fourth-best output in the Greek team.
“I am feeling excellent in Greece, I settled down immediately and thoroughly improved by performances. It is very much like Spain, with warm people, amazing climate and just easy to live your life,” says Plaza.
When he got the offer to join AEK in 2019, the all-star line player at the M20 EHF EURO 2014, did not know what to expect. After his stellar performance, helping Spain to secure the bronze medal in the aforementioned tournament, his talent was spotted by several big clubs in Europe.
He spent the next four seasons in the German Bundesliga, plying his trade for Füchse Berlin and SC Magdeburg, before making a big change to finally accept AEK’s offer.
“It helped that Spanish players and other players I knew played during this years for AEK. It was easier to absorb the new surroundings and become better and better,” adds the Spanish line player.
Indeed, experienced right wing Cristian Ugalde, who spent six seasons at Veszprém, has signed for AEK since 2020, chiming in with 34 goals this season, where the Greek champions secured four wins in the EHF European League Men’s group phase.
However, it was not plain sailing for AEK, who came in hot, making their debut in the second-tier European competition. Last season, the Greek side won the EHF European Cup Men with eight wins from ten games and thoroughly outplayed Swedish team Ystads IF in the final, taking a convincing 54:46 aggregate win.
“We knew it would be a tougher challenge this time around. The teams are stronger and more experienced. Just taking a glance through the list, you can see how balanced the competition is this season.”
“Before the group phase, we realised that we have to be even better than last season and I think we played some really good games. If I were honest, I would say that we could have won a game more. But it really boils down to paying attention against such strong opposition all the time,” says Plaza Jimenez.
"Have to bring our best to the table"
The last season’s EHF European Cup Men winners are currently fifth in the standings in Group D, one point behind Sporting CP and Kadetten Schaffhausen and two points behind HC Eurofarm Pelister, the team they will face on Tuesday. Only the first four teams progress to the Last 16 phase.
This means that AEK will have a must-win game on their hands against Pelister, a team that is riding a three-game winning streak at home, while the Greek champions lost their last three away games.
“It will be a very difficult match because they are playing at home and we know how the fans are going to push them from behind.”
“But we are in a must-win scenario and we have to bring our best game to the table. We won the last two games, against Nimes and Sporting CP, to put ourselves in this position and I truly hope to proceed to the next phase of the competition,” says Plaza Jimenez.
Indeed, AEK qualifying for the Last 16 phase of the EHF European League Men would be a huge boost for Greek handball and another big step made towards cementing AEK’s status as a strong side in European handball.
“The progress in Greece has been quite impressive over the last few years and it can be felt in our team and throughout the whole domestic league. And the national team should also be better and better because the teams are well-funded,” adds the Spanish line player.
What about Plaza’s future in Greece?
“I still have a contract here for the next season, so I am just happy to be playing handball,” replies the line player.
Despite his good performances in the European competitions over the past two seasons, he was never called up for Spain’s national team, as more experienced players featured in the squad who won two gold medals and one silver medal at the EHF EURO since 2018.
With that in mind, would he be up to playing for Greece?
“Well, if Spain does not come calling, I could, sure. I would love to play in the national team and Greece has been my second home in the past years. Like I already said, it is a great country. So if there is a plan, I would be available to listen to it,” concludes Plaza.