He is the most successful coach in the club history, with a European title, three titles in the SEHA - Gazprom League, with a handful of club records and achievements that will remain a challenge for his successors. Raul Gonzalez marked the past period of Vardar's handball rule in Macedonia and Europe.
Macedonian Handball Federation recognized his quality and hired him as a head coach of the senior national team. He led the team to the EHF EURO 2018 and now also manage to qualify for WCH 2019. In the WCH playoff game Macedonia eliminated Romania with a total score of 57-50.
Vardar was the team that raised him to the heights that he took among the European and world giants. Two seasons in a row Vardar were one of the strongest teams in Europe, playing the F4 tournament in Cologne twice but the club failed to defend the title. However, they brought uncertainty to the last moment in all games.
This season, Vardar played in four finals and won three trophies. How would you rate this season for Vardar from your point of view and how satisfied are you?
"We did well, but not great. I think Vardar deserved to play at the F4, we were the champions, we also had to defend the title, but we were not good enough at the final tournament. I am satisfied with everything, but we did not play as well as we can. We know it's hard, but I'm very pleased with my players."
The road to get to the final was tough, very similar as maybe last year, when Vardar won that title by one goal, everything happened in one minute?
"Yes, but not like this year's games. Last year with Barcelona we had three-four goals difference throughout the match, also against PSG. This season against Montpellier we did not play as we wanted to. Montpellier played great, even though we were preparing well for this tournament."
Since your arrival in Vardar, the club always played in EHFCL quarter-finals, twice at the F4 in Cologne, and won three titles in the SEHA - Gazprom League. How satisfied are you with what you have done as a coach and how proud are you of the club you were in?
"I am very proud, because we climbed together to the top. At the beginning Vardar was a new club that showed great ambitions, and by the end we achieved the biggest success in the EHF Champions League. I think after first two years we were very good. We played in the main group and it was very difficult. We played against everyone, and everyone wants the F4, but we need to understand that in the men's handball there are 12-13 teams that have the chance to play on F4. Our team has always been at the top and it is very important, because although we did not play in Cologne the first seasons, we had a very good chance against Kielce and Veszprem, they were a little better than us, maybe by just one goal. I think now Vardar is a very good team and there will always be a chance to play at the final tournament. I’m proud of my team, my president, the sponsor Sergey Samsonenko. Without him and his investment today Vardar would not be same team. He is a great man and many credits go to him."
Many say that the secret of Vardar's success is Raul. Is there anything you may have used specifically?
"No, I think the players are always the most important. I do not play, I can only help them. But if you do not have good players and do not play properly, you cannot do anything. I am now a coach from Vardar, after- it is PSG, but I think that my greatest success was that these players played well, they did what they were looking for."
Sometimes you have stars, you have the best players, it is hard to fit them and make a good result.
"I think the most important thing is to work well. Everything comes in its place.''
This season completes a period of your coaching career, but a new one starts. You will remember the period spent in Vardar.
"Of course, I will remember the winning of the EHF Champions League, and Stole's statement" Wow, people we did it." No one knows how hard and how we worked in the past period, because when we played the quarter-finals against Kielce and Veszprem, we were close to the Final Four tournament, and yet we failed. The last two seasons were really good, in every way. Also three titles in the SEHA - Gazprom league. These are excellent achievements."
What will you miss the most when you leave Skopje?
"When I came here, I was supported by everyone, from the audience, the club, the fans, the players. It was a bit strange for me, because in Spain it is not so."
How did you feel those first moments with that audience, support?
"Unlike Macedonia, handball is not so important in Spain, and in your country this is the first sport and there is a big difference. In Spain, 2-3 journalists will appear only at a training or press conference, they want to have the news only, but without information. Here everyone loves handball, they live for it. It's nice when you see a full hall, constant cheering, and support. That's what's beautiful in sports."
Did you get used to that popularity?
"Yes of course. In Spain you can go where you want, nobody knows that you are a handball coach. It's completely different here. Everyone wants to lather you, talk to you, take a picture with you."
Last year before that F4 tournament, Raul got a nickname "El Comandante". How do you feel in that role, how much do you like it?
"I did not know at first that they called me that way. Some even welcomed me that way. Now I have accepted it and it is easy."
The season Vardar had a chance to make history to defend that title, and when you need to choose several matches from when you are in Vardar, which games have impacted you the most, who demanded most of you energy, you were most uncertain?
"The Vardar - Flensburg match in 2014, after losing two goals in the first leg, in the second leg, despite the negativity of minus five after the first half. Then with one minute until the end, we had plus four and in just one minute we lost our chance to play at the F4 tournament. For everyone, it was very emotional, I think that match will remain in my greatest memory. We worked great those months, no one expected us to win against European champion Hamburg in eight-finals. I would also stress the match against Veszprem on home ground, we lost the first half with a four-five difference, but we played great. Their goalkeeper, I think, had 13 saves in the first 30 minutes, a lot, in clear situations on „one to one“. The second half we played better, we had a chance to triumph, but we also had a lot of pressure."
You always mention the players, that it depends on good energy. What is the secret of Vardar's success to reaching the European title to the Champions League, in SEHA - Gazprom League and staying dominance?
"Players like to train, prepare, we do a lot of work with video analysis. It's hard, normal, every day you see them train and play, and how the team grows."
All teams now want to apply a system as Vardar did so far. The club will continue with a Spanish coach in the future.
I am now a coach of Vardar and when I go, Parondo knows everything. Then there will be no problems. Maybe they will be better because he was with me for many years, I wanted him to be in my team of the Macedonian national team, because he is smart, also worked with Pastor, played with me in Valladolid, and knows how he works."
You are leaving Vardar, but are you staying in the national team.
"I think that with the team we have to go one step to another, the Olympics are very far away, when you train every day with the team, you can imagine how it will be when after three weeks. When you train with the national team, you have a week to get ready and you do not need to think anymore. So, you need to have a plan, choose the best one, you have to work with them and that's it."
Apart from that EHF Champions League, Vardar also dominated the SEHA – Gazprom League, what do you think how has this league helped the club to reach a certain level?
"SEHA is now on a different level with many good teams that play in the EHF Champions League. Last year Veszprem and Vardar played at the F4, you can say SEHA is not the best handball league, but among the few very best."
What will be in your memory from Skopje, something that will be remembered, a souvenir, something that when you are in Paris would be in your home?
"My Hall, for me is like a sign, I love Jane Sandanski, Kale and Boris Trajkovski. Because it is emotion when you go to Jane Sandanski hall and you see the hall, full, as fans give support. For me, my life is handball."