FTC coach Elek: “EHF FINAL4 is a reward”
Across the teams in this season’s EHF Champions League Women, no coach had a longer stint on the same bench than FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria’s Gabor Elek.
A former player and the son of a legend of Hungarian handball, Gyula Elek, himself a former coach at FTC, the 52-year-old has been coach of the Budapest team since 2007. The 16-year stint is highly unusual in modern handball, where the merry-go-round is in full swing.
However, the moving chairs did not affect Elek, who transformed FTC into one of the European powerhouses in women’s handball, while delivering excellent seasons in the domestic competitions — winning the Hungarian league twice, in 2015 and 2021, and the Hungarian Cup twice, in 2017 and 2023, all while battling Györ.
Yet one achievement was missing from Elek’s CV and that was an EHF FINAL4 appearance, in front of FTC’s die-hard fans in Budapest. Time and time again, FTC tried and failed, making the quarter-finals four seasons in a row, between 2016 and 2019, but being eliminated each time.
One can say that it is a reward which was definitely deserved, because we worked very hard and try to do our best each time. We wanted this qualification, we wanted to progress to the [EHF] FINAL4 and here we are, finally.
This time around, it seemed that FTC were also going to be eliminated early, after a 26:32 loss against Metz Handball in the first-leg quarter-final, as the Hungarian side faced the team that had previously lost only one game in the premium European competition in 2022/23.
But a 33:26 away win, one of the biggest surprises in recent history in the EHF Champions League Women, saw Elek’s FTC sail through to the EHF FINAL4, in what will be the coach’s last season with the team.
“One can say that it is a reward which was definitely deserved, because we worked very hard and try to do our best each time. We wanted this qualification, we wanted to progress to the [EHF] FINAL4 and here we are, finally,” says Elek before the showdown in Budapest.
Since taking over FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria in 2007, the Hungarian coach oversaw the side in 11 seasons in the premium European competition, winning 73 games from the 114 clinched by FTC.
This season, his team set their own record for the highest number of goals in a single match in the EHF Champions League Women in a 43:19 win against DHK Banik Most, which was also the second-biggest win in FTC’s history in the premium European competition.
Elek was the mastermind behind two of the four European titles won by FTC, securing the Women’s EHF Cup Winners’ Cup in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012.
In fact, the Hungarian coach has 99 wins under his belt in all European competitions and will go for triple digits in the EHF FINAL4, where the draw delivered a tough opponent in the semi-finals: Team Esbjerg.
“It is a very tough team to play against. They are definitely one of the best in the competition this season. They have a very good coach and four players who won the EHF EURO last year with Norway. Therefore, we are facing a tough challenge,” says Elek.
“But, of course, we proved that we are gritty, we proved that we stay true to ourselves, because this has been a rollercoaster season for us. It was a difficult one. We lost some games by big margins, but we still managed to claw back and be here in Budapest when it mattered.”
It can be a doubled-edge sword for us, of course. The pressure is on us to deliver a good result, because everybody expects us to do good. However, on the other hand, it will be an immense support, an excellent feeling.
We played our home games in Érd and the pressure on the opponents was there with a couple of thousand fans. Imagine what it will be like in Budapest, in one of the most important games of the season.
Indeed, FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria’s season has been a very difficult one. The Hungarian side are the team with the highest number of losses coming into the EHF FINAL4 — seven.
But time and time again, like in the 26:26 draw against reigning champions Vipers, the 28:25 win over Odense in the last match of the group phase or the otherworldly 33:26 win against Metz Handball in the second leg of the quarter-finals, FTC proved that there is something there — a button which, when pressed, can bring another side of the coin.
For the first time in history, two teams from the same country have qualified for the EHF FINAL4. For the first time in history, opponents will feel the full pressure of a packed MVM Dome, as FTC will likely draw thousands of fans to cheer for them.
“It can be a doubled-edge sword for us, of course. The pressure is on us to deliver a good result, because everybody expects us to do good. However, on the other hand, it will be an immense support, an excellent feeling,” says Elek.
“We played our home games in Érd and the pressure on the opponents was there with a couple of thousand fans. Imagine what it will be like in Budapest, in one of the most important games of the season.”
While Elek is usually a coach that likes to keep to himself — “I do not like to appear in front of the media, especially so many people gathered here in Budapest” — he is surely one of the stars of the team.
It is not about the unexpected wins against Györ in the domestic competitions or the consistency proven time and time again in the EHF Champions League Women — it is that his stint at FTC is something truly scarce in handball today.
And whether FTC will go to the final or gift Elek his 100th European win this weekend in Budapest, these two games in the EHF FINAL4 are a coronation for a coach whose journey had highs and lows, but is ultimately ending on a big note.