Pastor: “I'd have never thought that I'd stay 10 years in Szeged”
Ten years is a long time - in life in general, but more so in handball, where things move at a blistering pace. Therefore, for a coach to stay a decade in the same position, irrespective of the results, is a huge achievement.
Juan Carlos Pastor is the longest-serving coach in the Machineseeker EHF Champions League, having taken over OTP Bank-PICK Szeged in 2013 and adding layers and layers to a team which became a true powerhouse in European handball.
However, all good things come to an end. Pastor’s career at Szeged finishes in June, after some excellent years, which saw the Hungarian side win the title three times, in 2017, 2021 and 2022, the Hungarian Cup in 2019 and their first-ever European trophy, the Men’s EHF Cup in 2014.
“I feel 10-15-20 per cent Hungarian now,” smiles Pastor when asked about his stint at Szeged.
“It is only logical, right? I have spent the last 10 years here, it has been a very satisfying experience, the city has become my second home. I will always be Spanish, I have spent most of my life in my home country, but this experience has been amazing,” adds the 54-year-old coach.
When Pastor came to Szeged, the Hungarian side had won two domestic titles and reached the quarter-finals of the EHF Champions League twice, in 1997 and 2004.
Szeged have improved in every category, becoming one of the toughest teams to beat on their home court and even reached the quarter-finals in 2016/17, when they eventually conceded a 57:60 aggregate loss against Paris Saint-Germain Handball.
“When I first came to Szeged, it was a two-year contract, with a possibility of another two-year extension. Ten years here? I would not have thought to stay so long when I decided to move here and join the team,” remembers Pastor.
“But when everything clicks - and in this particular case it really clicked - then it is just normal to spend a decade here. It was an amazing time and it worked excellent for most of the time.”
Born in Valladolid, Pastor became a coach when he was only 27 years old, taking over his hometown club, BM Valladolid. In a league dominated by two giants, Barça and Ciudad Real, Pastor snatched two Spanish Cups with his underdog side and made a name for himself by working tirelessly.
Such was the impact of his performances, he was also named the Spain men’s national team coach, winning a first World Championship with Spain in 2005 and securing a silver medal at the EHF EURO 2006.
Despite his superb CV, when Szeged came calling in 2013, Pastor had never coached outside of Spain, therefore the challenge he faced was big. And he needed time, in a business where time is one of the most precious resources.
“Of course it was a big change, because we came here and it was a different system, a different way of playing and understanding the sport. Therefore, it was a lot of work and many training sessions to have the plan respected and put into place. Eventually, it worked out just fine,” adds Pastor.
Titles arrived and OTP Bank-Pick Szeged became a true powerhouse in European handball, winning against any team in Europe.
“We won against PSG, we won against Barca, we won against Veszprém, we even had big wins against Rhein-Neckar Löwen when they were the best German team a few years ago. Our mindset was that we can beat everybody in every match. This is the only way a team can go forward,” says the Spanish coach.
Indeed, Szeged did become a team to be feared, but a place in the TruckScout24 EHF FINAL4 has always evaded them one way or the other. Sometimes, Szeged were close, other times they did not have the strength and were thoroughly outplayed.
This season, Pastor’s last for the Hungarian side, they finished sixth in their group, which meant that a ticket for Cologne was always going to be a tall order. Moreover, the path for the business end of the competition was going to pass through Veszprém, their arch rivals.
The first leg, in Szeged, was truly disappointing for Pastor’s side, conceding one of the toughest home losses in the Spanish coach’s tenure, 23:36, meaning that the quarter-finals berth was as good as gone. But there is still an objective for Szeged before the second leg in Veszprém, which will likely be Pastor’s last match for the Hungarian champions in the European premium competition.
“We want to play well and give everything we got on the court. Will we win by 13? Probably not. But if we do leave every ounce of energy there, then I will be proud,” says Pastor.
Time usually flies and a decade just breezed past Szeged, with the Spanish coach leading every game on the bench. From next season, things will be different. But Pastor’s legacy will be there, hovering upon one of the most successful periods in the team’s history.
“I was happy to be here, I was happy to serve this great club and these great fans. I hope that Szeged will become even better in the future,” concludes Pastor.