STA, 27 September 2019 - Slovenia's national volleyball team is travelling to Paris for the final of the European Volleyball Championship in what will be their second gold-medal match in four years. Following an improbable run powered by the Ljubljana crowd, the team will be looking to improve on its silver medal from 2015 and return home with gold.
While Slovenia's opponent in the final is yet to be determined, with Serbia and France playing the other semi-final today, Slovenia are already packing for Paris after beating the reigning world champions Poland 3:1 yesterday.
The win took place in the sold-out Stožice Arena, with more than 11,000 people tirelessly cheering for the home team from the first to last minutes, helping Slovenia beat the favoured Poles, who had been demolishing teams on their way to the semis.
It came after Slovenia finished second in Group C, behind the reigning European champions Russia, defeated Bulgaria 3:1 in the round of 16 and avenging the group stage loss to Russia in the quarter-finals by beating them 3:1.
The French capital will be another opportunity to win gold after Slovenia took silver at the 2015 championship in Bulgaria and Italy, losing to France in the finals. The teams could meet again on Sunday if the hosts of the medal round beat Serbia.
One of the heroes of the match was veteran captain Tine Urnaut, who led Slovenia with 18 points, second only to the naturalised Cuban in the ranks of Poland, Wilfredo Leon, who had game-high 22 points as he dominated with the serve and spikes.
Urnaut said that it did not matter who was on the other side of the court, "we said we would leave our hearts out there, that we would go all in. We had the unbelievable desire to win, because everything is possible in front of this great crowd."
Sunday's finals are hard to compare to that from four years ago, as then it was the first time for Slovenia. "The celebration ends when we get to the locker room, and we will try to get fully prepared to play the finals as well as possible."
Libero Jani Kovačič was happy that it was exactly the Poles to get beaten by Slovenia in the semi-finals, because "they can be rather arrogant sometimes, they have been convinced for some years that they are better than us".
Setter Dejan Vinčić, who plays professionally in Poland, said that Slovenia "did not want bronze, and we don't want silver, because we already have it, we are going to Paris for the gold medal".
Many Slovenian celebrities congratulated the players on social media, ice hockey player Anže Kopitar, retired skier Tina Maze, basketball players Luka Dončić and Goran Dragić and ski jumper Peter Prevc.
Slovenia will have strong support in Paris as well, as a few thousand Slovenians are expected there, with three charter flights taking off from Ljubljana today, and two on Saturday. Many others will travel there by coach or car.
While the tournament now shifts to the French capital, Stožice Arena is bidding farewell to volleyball after hosting 19 matches of the European Championships in two weeks, attended by a total of 76,000 people. The most foreign fans came from Finland (1,600).
The organisers received praise from the European Volleyball Confederation (CEV), with its representative Maja Poljak giving them an "A". She told the STA the organisation had exceeded her expectations and that she would report this to the superiors.
"I've played everywhere, seen a lot of arenas and matches, but I don't remember such an audience. Not only that it was loud, but fans cheered in a fair and sportsmanship manner. Ljubljana has made an excellent advertisement for volleyball."