The feet on the groundArticle
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EHF Women’s Champions League countdown, part 11: Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra (ESP)

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The feet on the ground

It was one of the biggest surprises in the history of the EHF Women’s Champions League, when last season Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra started their march to overwhelm the traditionally strong teams and favourites in this competition.

Last season’s success

By winning the Group Phase the three times Spanish champions reached the ideal base for the next phase, where they eliminated the 2009/10 finalists Oltchim Vâlcea to reach the semi-finals.

And then the Spaniards even jumped over the hurdle Györ to become the final opponents of Larvik HK.

One who thought the Norwegians were the clear favourites, went wrong. Itxako were a tough opponent, won the second leg on home ground, but in the end missed their first ever EHF Women’s Champions League title by goal difference.

EHF Cup success

It was like a ‘from zero to hero’ story, and even as they missed the happy-end Itxako was absolutely proud of what they had reached in their in total third final of a European Cup competition.

Three years before, in 2009 they won the EHF Cup and reached the EHF Cup final one year later.

High objectives

Itxako had a fantastic season last year, but they are aware that it will be very hard to repeat.

Still the objective of last season’s finalists is to reach the semi-finals, well knowing that they have to very tough opponents in Vâlcea, Volgograd and Buxtehude.

New players join the team

The team roster has changed in many positions: Itxako signed in total seven new players, four from Spain and three from abroad.

The biggest names among are the Balkan newcomers Maja Zebic and Mirjana Milenkovic. On the other hand Turey and Kurbanova returned home to Russia, Chirila now plays for their fist stage opponent from Valcea and goalkeeper Adriana Stefani transferred to German champions Thüringer HC.

Key players injured

Another problem for Itxako: Their key players Begoña Fernandez and Nerea Pena were injured during preparation – and the Spanish champions eagerly hope that they will return for the EHF Women’s Champions League.

Spanish Super Cup winners

Itxako showed their dominance in Spain by winning the Super Cup clearly against Elda Prestigio in a clear manner.

Ederra left the club

Also in the club board there was a major change, as Fernando Ederra left Itxako after eleven years as Vice President.

Cautious President

His former ‘boss’, Club President Miguel Bujanda, is avoiding to set the aims too high for the upcoming season of the EHF Women’s Champions League: "We are going to fight hard in every match like every year.

When the season is over we will analyze the performance of the team. Every season we worked step by step and the results were very good - so for the future we are going the same way."

In Bujanda’s opinion their first opponents are tough: "For us it is more difficult than last year. I think that Oltchim Vâlcea’s team has improved. In the other groups Hypo signed a lot of new, very good players."

Barbosa believes in the team

Portuguese key player Alexandrina Cabral Barbosa hopes for the strength of the collective, but is also aware: "We must keep our feet on the ground and go game by game.

In October we will deal with very strong teams and we have to be at a high level. We shall not forget how we got to the finals last year. Our best weapon is the humility and the solidarity of the team."

Wait and see

Her opinion about the EHF Women’s Champions League favourites this season: "There are very strong teams with very good players and with big budgets which can win the EHF Champions League.

We will have to compete based on our budget. My favourites are Györ, Buducnost, Larvik and Oltchim.

For my team, I still think we have to wait and see what happens in the Group Matches."

Social media, videos, merchandising, songs

To attract more spectators and to get in contact with more fans the club proposed new promotion formats like a new video clip and a new song.

The social media project including players and results had a good start. The next tasks are the production of the Itxako app, a live streaming project for the domestic matches on the website and a shop with official clothes and merchandising of the club – online and with distribution at local shops.

Social Responsibility Program

Another focuses of the club are their youth program with in total 15 teams from seven year old players on and the Social Responsibility Program, which started in 2010 with different local and regional projects.

Three questions to your coach Ambros Martín What are your expectations for the upcoming season of the EHF Women’s Champions League – concerning your objectives and your group opponents?

Ambros Martín: Our aim is to improve, to gain experience in an extraordinary competition with many powerful clubs and to reinforce our hopes. What does the participation in the EHF Women’s Champions League mean to you and your club?

Ambros Martín: This is the maximum you can reach at club level. In our Spanish league every year teams lose more potential – but in the EHF Champions League the opposite happens.

There are the best players of the world and the teams are like national teams. What teams are your personal favourites for winning the title this season – and why?

Ambros Martín: Györ, because they have been fighting for the title for many years. Oltchim Vâlcea, because they have strengthened their team by weakening the future opponents – and

Larvik, because of their experience and quality.

Club facts – Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra (ESP)

Newcomers: Deonise Fachinello Cavaleiro (HAC Handball/FRA), Maja Zebic (HC Podravka Vegeta/CRO), Mirjana Milenkovic (WHC Biseri/MNE), Zulai Aguirre (Bera Bera), Nerea Planillo, Leire Ramos, Nekane Teres

Left the club: Oana Chirila (Valcea/ROU), Emiliya Turey (Rostov/RUS), Adriana Stefani (Thüringer HC/GER), Natalia Kurbanova (Rostov/GER), Amaia Azanza (Sporting La Rioja/ESP)

Coach: Ambros Martin, since 2004

Qualification for the 2011/2012 EHF Women’s Champions League season: Spanish champions

EHF Women’s Champions League records:
Participations (including 2011/2012 season): 4
Finals: 2010/11
Group Phase: 2009/10
Qualification: 2008/09

Other EC records:
EHF Cup Winner 2008/09, Finalist 2007/08

Spanish champions: 2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11
Spanish Cup winner: 2009/10, 2010/11

Further information

Find more information on Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra HERE.

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TEXT: Björn Pazen