Dance of the Dragons
“When we take the court in the Pavilhao Dragao Arena, we all feel like dragons.”
It may sound farfetched, but Victor Iturriza knows something about the spirit and the grit shown by FC Porto, the Portuguese champions who have been steadily improving over the years in the EHF Champions League Men.
The dragon is the theme of the team, with Porto’s nickname being “The Dragons” and the literal translation of their home court being the “Dragon’s Arena.”
The Cuban-born Portuguese line player has been one of the hallmarks of Porto’s meteoric rise towards the top of Europe, with the “Dragons” becoming one of the hardest teams to beat in the EHF Champions League Men.
They came back in the 2019/20 season, curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, then secured a play-off berth in the next season, being eliminated by the eventual finalists Aalborg on away goals, after a 56:56 aggregate draw.
This time around?
“In my head, in my coach’s head and in the mind of the club, the dream is, surely, to qualify for the EHF FINAL4. But we know, this is very difficult, that there are very good teams we have to win against.”
“However, the team’s spirit is so powerful and we are all working towards the same goal, also dreaming this. Last year, we were so close, against Aalborg, now we have more experience and we think that being there, between the top four teams in Europe, is not such a crazy dream,” says Iturriza.
“This city is my home”
A tough ask, some might say, with so many powerhouses at the start of the competition. But nothing looks to deter Iturriza, both on and off the court.
The 31-year-old line player came to Portugal in 2014, spending two seasons at Atletica de Avanca before signing for Porto.
“I knew plenty about Porto and Portugal before coming here from Cuba. My first seasons were not at Porto, but I usually ended up here, because I had many friends playing here. Today, Porto for me is a family, we are one for all and all for one and this city and this team are like my home,” adds Iturriza.
A strong, dual-threat player, essential in defence, but also very good in attack, the Portuguese player has been on a steep upward curve in terms of his form. In his first season in the EHF Champions League Men, Iturriza scored 37 goals, nearly doubling his tally in the 2020/21 season, when he added 62 goals.
After three games this season, he scored 12 times, helping his team build a two-game winning streak, 28:27 against SG Flensburg-Handewitt and 27:26 against Dinamo Bucuresti.
“I grew up a lot because Porto opened my eyes to European handball. When I first got here, I did not have a lot of contact with other European teams, therefore it really helped me grow as a player and as a person. At Porto, I really grew up to the level I am now and I feel really grateful,” added Iturriza.
He was also nominated for the vote of the All-Star line player position last season, which underlined his importance for Porto and his development in the past year.
“It was an honour for me, personally, but also a bit of a surprise because I knew I did a good job. Who knows, maybe I will play better this season and I will make the All-Star team now,” joked Porto’s line player.
“The fight will be tough”
With their strong game plan, Porto have been a team to watch in the past seasons and now are facing a difficult home game, the Match of the Week against Telekom Veszprém HC.
The Hungarian side is tied with three other teams, including Porto, at four points in the standings, making the clash pivotal for the future of the group.
“We know that Veszprém are a strong side, they won against the reigning champions, Barca, in the past game. I like to look at the opponent’s line players, and Blaz Blagotinsek and Andreas Nilsson are two very strong players, some of the best in this position in Europe right now. The fight will be very tough,” said Iturriza.
The two sides have also met in the 2019/20 season, when Porto conceded two clear losses, 38:28 and 31:24, but this time, the Portuguese side has more experience on their roster.
“It will not be easy for me, but I do not think it will be easy for them either, because we have some powerful weapons ourselves. We defend better, so I think we will bring the fight to them,” concluded the Portuguese line player.
“I still wear his shirt”
Regardless of Porto winning or losing, Iturriza is still trying to enjoy every moment of the court. A win would bring a huge smile on his face and would certainly be dedicated to the memory of Porto’s former goalkeeper, Alfredo Quintana.
The former Cuban-born Portuguese goalkeeper passed away unexpectedly last February and left a huge hole at Porto. For Iturriza, who was best friends with Quintana, it really hit deep.
“I am still wearing his shirt under my own and I always think about him. We have a photo of him with us in the locker room and we are trying to win every game for him.”
“No matter the game, no matter the result, we are thinking about Alfredo. It is difficult, of course, but we always honour his memory,” concluded Iturriza.
FC Porto face Telekom Veszprém in Match of the Week on Thursday 14 October at 20:45 CEST, with live commentary on EHFTV.