Men’s Challenge III gets under way on Thursday morning with Gibraltar’s Eagles hosting a EuroHockey event for a second successive year.
The line-up sees Bulgaria’s Wolves, Finnish ‘Pinks’ HC Klippari, Lithuania’s Zuvedra Tauras and Norway’s Furuset in Pool A while the host club are up against Sweden’s Valhalla, Bulgaria’s Akademik Plus and Malta’s Qormi Daikin in Pool B.
Read the team by team preview here:
Gibraltar (Men) – EuroHockey Club Challenge III
The Wolves (BUL)
HC The Wolves has a 6-year history but most of the players have a long experience together, building to become together a united, cohesive and motivated team with a strong spirit.
The most experienced player is also their coach – Valentin Georgiev. He has been playing field hockey for more than 15 years, always giving his best to be the best leader and best friend for his players.
He is a former member of the Bulgarian national Under-16 coaching team and has multiple international participations as a competitor in European Championships.
There are other team members who have participated in international competitions are captain Kristiyan Gerginov, a key defender, goalkeeper Krasimir Kostov, striker Isus Dimitrov and Angel Hilendarov, the latter who took a silver medal at the EuroHockey5s U16 Championship II in Albena in 2019.
Petar Gochev, Aleksandar Arabadzhiev, Halil Martinov, Daniel Lekov and Aleksandar Todorov are current members of the Bulgarian Under-18 setup ahead of their EuroHockey Under-18 Championship in Alanya, Turkey this summer.
As coach Georgiev loves to tell them ahead of their club’s debut: “Always believe in yourself and have fun on the field!”
HC Klippari (FIN)
Finland’s leading lights of the past decade, they have won their national championship eight of the last 10 occasions but missed out on the 2021 – which was their qualifier for this year – to surprise package Vantaa.
Among their key players are David Hurrell, the solid leader of our defensive line; captain Sampo Hirvioja in the midfield and dangerous forward duo Tommi Rantala and Santeri Määttänen.
Many of our players have a long history in Euro Hockey tournaments with goalkeeper Jussi Luhta being the most experienced player with his first EuroHockey tournament played in Slovenia in 1999.
For “the pinks”, their league season does not start until June while their indoor season ended in Februayr but they are happy with how their practice over the last six weeks has gone.
Captain Sampo Hirvioja says of their prospects: “We have an experienced, hard-working team of which the core has played together for a long time already, so we really know each other well and have a good connection on and off the pitch.
“HC Kilppari has participated in the Euro tournaments for over 10 years already but has never made it to the top two outdoors before. As this tournament will most likely be the “last dance” for a few of our players, we are going to give it all to make this tournament the unforgettable one where we finally get to lift the trophy!”
Zuvedra Tauras (LTU)
Zuvedra Tauras are off to Gibraltar for a second successive year having played in 2022 in the Challenge II where they ended in third place. This year, they travel as Lithuania’s runners-up and they currently sit in third place but with a game in hand on second placed Baltic Champs.
Key players include Povilas Lakštauskas, Tomas Lakštauskas, Edvin Stankevič, Giedrius Kuizinas, Ernestas Ustinovičius, Arnas Česnulis, Jaroslav Suchocki and Rafal Stankevič and they are joined by a quintet of teenagers who are making their European debuts.
Building to this competition, training has been held three times a week for two months with the “guys running a lot!” according to Povilas Lakštauskas. “It is a little bit stressfull for young players to play in another country for the first time, but it will be a great experience for them!”
Furuset Landhockeyklubb (NOR)
Furuset will be making their third appearance in Challenge events, the first coming a decade ago in Athens when they were sixth, the other a Challenge III seventh place in 2019 in Alanya.
They have a smattering of international talent with Dutchmen Wouter Craamer and Bouwe Theijse; English trio Andrew Grant, George Roberts and Daniel Gillespie and Irishman Asa Frederick Mallon. They also had German player Thomas Sonntag – who previously played in the Euro Hockey League with Monkstown – on their long list but he is not in the tournament panel.
Of their Norwegian crew, captain Mohammad Khidash Kiyani and Waqqas Ahmed Riaz have plenty of games under their belt having also played for MASK on the Euro stage.
Their start to the season has been a strong one, beating MASK 1-0 and Sagene 6-0 in the early stages of the recently started Norwegian league.
Eagles HC (GIB) – pictured above
The Eagles squad is composed of a balanced blend of experienced players of many European campaigns, both at club and national level, including three debutants under the age of 17 – Art Wicks, Aren Wink and Darren Cerisola.
All their players are Gibraltarians and several with experience playing in the UK universities league and some in Spanish first and second division hockey leagues.
They have kept most of the squads that earned top spot and promotion in their last two European adventures; namely in Malta Challenge IV (2019) and Gibraltar Challenge II (2022).
It’s their second consecutive year hosting an official European competition and they are all very excited and ready to go.
Qormi Daikin HC (MLT)
Qormi Daikin Hockey Club has 10 players playing with the Maltese national team and come into the competition having been crowned the national champions for a record 15th time recently having been runners-up last term.
It comes amid a special season which has seen them also win Under-14, 16, 18, Reserves, Super Cup, Challenge Cup, and the National League.
Their aim in these competitions is to keep on learning from foreign clubs to improve our own game and mentality, whilst improving our connections with clubs from the mainland. They were gold medalists a year ago in Kirklareli in the Challenge III.
FHC Akademik Plus Sofia (BUL)
Bulgaria’s champions were established in 2002 but have only recently become regulars on the European stage with funding secured to help them on the road.
Captain of the team is Bogomil Pavlov who is one of their strongest competitors with many years of experience at European level both with Akademik and NSA before that.
Georgi Bаklev played for a number of years in Germany in Bonn while veteran Danail Balev – who is over 50 years old – has long experience and continues to take an active part. His two sons Ventsislav Balev and Stefan Balev will also take part in the competition.
Their previous competitions saw them finish seventh in Challenge I while they have also played twice in Challenge II and once in Challenge III.
Sweden’s Valhalla are making their return to European action for the first time outdoors since 2009 having finished as runners-up to SLF Mesaicos last term. This season started well, though, with a 4-0 win over Mesaicos getting them up and running earlier this month.
Amont their key players is captain Kristian Yacoub who brings the spirit up when it’s low and brings out the best in everyone. Then they have quick and creative midfielder Anders Magnusson who is both fast with the ball and has a good eye on the field. Calm and secure defender Isac Thorkildsen manages the back line.
“Some of the players have been playing together for years but some are brand new so we are excited to see how it’s going to play out” says team leader Ellen Harju.