Former player aiming to build all-conquering side in Veszprém
Nikola Eklemovic remains a respected former player in Hungary to this day, having played for both Pick Szeged and Veszprém. The Belgrade-born playmaker became a Hungarian citizen in 2008 and since the beginning of the current season (2016/7) he has take on a new role as Telekom Veszprem’s Director of Sport.
“They approached me after the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and for me there was not much to think about,” Eklemovic told ehfCL.com. “I felt honoured to be offered the Director of Sport position and we quickly shook [hands] on it.
“I have a lot of responsibilities, but adjusting to the new role has been made easy by the club and players, who really made me feel at home from the very first minute.
“There are players in the squad who I played with and now I am a manager; it’s an enormous honour to serve this club as a director having served it as a player.”
A 70-match season requires a big squad
As Director of Sport, Eklemovic plays a vital part in the signing of players which have included world stars like Dragan Gajic and Marko Kopljar.
“Veszprém have the edge over fellow FINAL4 contenders because our squad has not changed too much, however, it is a great achievement to land such talents,” he continued.
“It’s not that we did not have faith in our squad to go all the way to the final but things have changed since last year. Veszprém compete in the Hungarian league, the SEHA League and the EHF Champions League, which adds up to about 70 matches this season, not counting the national team competitions,” he added.
“Our aim was to have our key players fit and strong for the run-in of all competitions, which required serious signings.”
Apart from player signings, Eklemovic operates as an advisor, especially when it comes first-hand experience. This is the case with Wisla Plock, where Eklemovic spent the last four years of his playing career.
“Of course we talked about Plock with coach Xavi Sabaté,” he said, “but they already know a lot about our next opponents, they know how hard it is to win in their arena and most of them remember what happened last year.” In 2015 Veszprém parted ways with coach Carlos Ortega after his team failed to hold on to their lead in Poland against Orlen Wisla Plock and had to settle for a draw.
Age is not a concern
Some observers have said last season’s VELUX EHF FINAL4 was the last chance for this Veszprém generation to win the trophy they have been chasing for decades but Eklemovic disagrees.
“It is true that some of our key players are in their mid-30s,” he explained. “But if you take a look at the average age of teams that triumphed in Cologne, you will see they are almost without an exception beyond their 30’s.”
Eklemovic doesn’t think Veszprém, who once again threw away victory in the last second in Flensburg and were thoroughly beaten is Skopje in the SEHA League, started their campaign slowly.
“People just don’t seem to be able to get over the frustration of the EHF Champions League final,” he said. “That is why some of our fans are a little impatient but I believe we are where we should be in our building process.
“This is a very long season and we have to figure out a lot of things as far as squad rotation and tactical plans are concerned. I firmly believe we are on the right track but people see problems where there are none,” he added.
“I believe in what the Americans say; if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Seven years of memories
The playmaker was a fan favourite in Veszprém and Eklemovic claims he spent the best years of his career at the club. “Amongst thousands of memories I have from my career I have two that stand out,” he said.
“One of the most emotionally challenging games I have ever played in was the game after the death of Marian Cozma. I remember every second of the match against Ademar Leon as vividly as if it happened yesterday,” he added. “That day the city of Veszprém, fans and players came together as a mourning family, which gave us, players huge strength on the court.
“The other memory was our Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in Mannheim. That was a great achievement because we managed to beat Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the final and we played two spotless games against the German powerhouse.”
Eklemovic believes this VELUX EHF Champions League season will be one of the strongest in the competition’s history.
“Don’t ask me to put together a power ranking,” he said with a smile. “There are at least eight teams that have the capacity to win the most prestigious trophy but ranking them would be almost impossible.
“There are traditional contenders, like us, along with Barcelona, Kielce and PSG but for example Flensburg and Vardar are extremely strong sides, too.
“But we are not focusing on opponents just yet,” he continued. “We have our entire campaign to build up and a lot of things will happen before trophies are handed out at the end of the season.
“Our aim is to fight for all of them.”