Malaga’s inner strength key to overcoming adversity
27 years ago, women’s handball in Spain was making its first baby steps, as Mar Valencia was the overwhelming force, winning 20 consecutive titles between 1979 and 1998.
In the middle of that dominance, a small club was founded in Malaga and they would spent 19 of their first 20 seasons in the second league of the Spanish pyramid.
Since their promotion in the 2013/14 season, Rincon Fertilidad Malaga have always been a thorn in the sides of Spain’s powerhouses but have never placed better than fourth in the Liga Guerreras Iberdrola.
But they want more and are determined to become only the fifth Spanish side to win a European trophy, after Mar Valencia, Itxako Navarra, Rocasa Gran Canaria and El Ferrobus Mislata.
The final challenge? A do-or-die double-header in the first final of the EHF European Cup against Croatian side Lokomotiva Zagreb.
Malaga have already been knocking on the door in only their third European season, reaching the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup in 2018 and 2019.
But with a Spanish core boasting world silver medallists, like left wing Soledad Lopez and centre back Silvia Arderius, Malaga have firmly set their sights on European silverware.
The untimely death that changed everything
The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on European handball as a whole but Malaga found the 2019/20 season especially hard. It was not a matter of finances or postponed matches but the Spanish club was shaken to its core after the untimely death of coach Diego Carrasco in July 2019.
Carrasco has been serving as Malaga’s coach throughout their history, a 25-year tenure that saw him standing tall during the team’s ups and downs.
“I think Diego has been a reference not only in Malaga but in the Spanish handball. It was an honour serving under him through thick and thin,” said Suso Gallardo, Carrasco’s former assistant coach and now the head coach for Rincon Fertilidad Malaga.
Having learned the basics from Carrasco, Gallardo continued his legacy and the team responded brilliantly in the last months, winning four rounds in the EHF European Cup to reach the final.
No tie was more difficult than the semi-final against fellow Spanish side Club Balonmano Atletico Guardes, against whom Malaga dominated, taking a 44:37 aggregate win.
“I am very happy with how the team performed during the last season. Reaching the final of a European competition is a dream. Moreover, we won the Spanish Cup and the Spanish Super Cup, the first two trophies in our history, therefore I think we can count this season as a success,” added Gallardo.
And it was a Malaguista, born and bred, who represented the team throughout her career, who propelled Rincon Fertilidad to the final.
Left wing Soledad Lopez Jimenez scored 38 goals in the eight games this season and was constantly the one to watch for the Spanish team. Now, she can win her first international trophy with the team she played for over the last ten years.
Facing a true powerhouse
“I am very happy and proud for the team and for our city to reach this final. It is a testament for the hard work put in here.
“I am playing with my heart and my soul for the team. It was a dream for me and, finally, it will come true this weekend. We will give our all,” said Lopez before the game against Lokomotiva Zagreb.
Yet the challenge will not be easy. Rincon Fertilidad Malaga will face Lokomotiva Zagreb, a plucky Croatian side, riding an eight-game winning streak in the European Cup this season. Lokomotiva’s average win margin was 11.1 goals per game, an outstanding stat, which gives Malaga a lot to think about.
Furthermore, the unlikely challenge mounted by Croatia at the Women’s EHF EURO 2020 last December was fuelled by eight Lokomotiva players, who won the bronze medal in Denmark, in one of the biggest surprises in the history of the tournament.
“Lokomotiva are a team who are usually taking advantage of their opponents’ woes, so we need to be careful. They are very strong,” says Gallardo, prior to the first game, which Malaga will host next Saturday.
But the Spanish team is confident that they can write history.
“Our women’s handball suffered a lot in the last years, with players finding lucrative deals abroad. Fighting for a European trophy proves we are doing a great job and, hopefully, it can fuel the confidence for our league to get back to its former strength,” concludes Gallardo.
Whether Malaga do that or not, only time will tell, but the sheer strength displayed during this season, after a period of mourning, is impressive.
“We need to channel these feelings in the final and we can celebrate an important win. Hopefully, we will,” smiles Lopez.