By Niklas Kukat & Ken Galluccio
Photos by Galluccio
The Stage is Set, the Band Starts Playing
This year's European Championships in Lahti, Finland saw a total of 18 Men's and 10 Women's teams competing for the European crown from the 6th-16th of August 2008, making it the biggest European Championship ever held. The participation of so many nations in the tournament clearly shows the development of the game here in Europe these last 10 years, an effort spearheaded by ELF President Peter Mundy.
The week's weather varied greatly. It varied from drizzle, to light rain, to rain, to downpour, and then back again in reverse. It was therefore no surprise that a cold and rainy afternoon in Lahti, Finland, saw the opening ceremony for this year's European Championships. What was however to be the first surprise of many for these Euros was the hospitality ace the organising committee had up their sleeves - a brain freezing but heart warming highlight performance by the ladies from Fantasy Fitness!
The men's playing field was divided into three equally strong groups playing round robin into which all nations were distributed by snaked seeding. The concept: the top 2 per group had then the chance to play in a further winner's round robin phase to determine the gold and bronze medal match ups. Defending title holder England was certainly the favourite [sic] among the lot together with what can now be termed "old rivals" Germany and Czech Republic. Perhaps no one expected the surprises that were to come from young unknowns the Netherlands and Finland, the hosts. The latter proved to be the Championship Cinderella and wasted no time letting everyone know they meant business. In their very first Game "Team Suomi" played their hearts out to force heavily favored Germany into OT, only to come up short 9-10. A couple of hundred spectators watched the game and it was a fabulous kick-off for the Championships.
Earlier that morning England had beaten Switzerland, which is no surprise, though the score was a bit of a shocker - 40 to zero. Wow, but heck, you gotta do something for 80 minutes, right? In any event, this set off a tournament-long debate over the merits of the playing schedule and should such pairings even be allowed at all. This is an especially relevant question considering that the design of the tournament overlooked the possibility of weighted brackets and the application of a "European Newcomer's Tournament", in a separate but parallel bracket. Such a system could have been paired with a play-in possibility as well. Strange then that what was overlooked for the men was not for the women which indeed had weighted groups but then again no play-in possibility for medal rounds. There was MUCH talk about, a good deal of debate, and even threatened legal action concerning the playing system.
Men's Favorites Move into the Top 6 and then onto the Medal Games
During the first week it became quite obvious which nations were competing for the title. In Group A, defending champion England easily cruised by the rest of their opponents leaving the second place to Ireland. Group B saw the German team reaching for a 5th consecutive appearance in the Gold medal game with Finland as the emerging underdog team. Yet another story surfaced in group C, where a three way tie between Sweden, Scotland and the Netherlands allowed Sweden to squeak though as number one by goal differential and left the Netherlands in second. The Winner's Round Robin phase then saw expected wins by England to cruise though to the final, leaving Germany and the Netherlands to battle it out for the other spot in the gold medal match. On a day where the Germans, according to on-scene commentary from fans, "just didn't get off the bus", a great performance by the Dutch and especially goalie Grant Zimmermann catapulted the Orange Crush into the final against England.
Team Germany was left to overcome the disappointment of the semi-final loss and rally to play Sweden for the Bronze. Sweden had reasserted themselves in European Lacrosse over the course of the event, hanging tough and wining a couple of real nail-biters including an OT mud slinging battle of the trenches against Scotland, and they came ready to play. In an exciting game in which the score stayed within 2 either way, Germany managed to hold onto the lead and win 9-8, closing their Euro's play exactly as they had begun many long wet days before against Finland.
In the Main Event, the Netherlands unfortunately still looked a bit drained, a little tired perhaps from their semi's surge, and were thus no real challenge for the defending champion. England had already won the game in the first quarter with perfect ball control, calculated possessions and text-book team offense. Although 80 minutes were played, it was sooner over than not and England emerged as the old and new European Champion with a 14-4 victory over the Netherlands.
No Illusion - European Lacrosse on the Rise
These Championships demonstrated clearly that Lacrosse is on the rise in Europe and the standard of competition is growing year for year. Further developments are being made within the respective countries to develop the game among the youth and implement the sport into the local school systems. We can certainly look forward to exciting performances of the European nations in the next World Games held in 2010 hosted by Manchester.
Champs Past, Present... Future?
Team England - a Serious Walk in the Park...
Since the inception of the Euro Championships, some critics have maintained that the standard of competition is not challenging enough for England at the European level. Certainly there is merit to this argument, and with a look to the European hardware collection and overall W-L columns, there is also enough proof to back it as well. However, the quality of the opposition continues to improve, the range of styles and number of credible opponents continues to grow. England were a bit shocked when Germany hit the pipe with only seconds remaining in the 2004 Euros Final, narrowly missing tying the game and sending it into OT. This time around they weren't taking any chances and Coach Elwood had them drilled, fine tuned, and humming. They dispelled all doubt that they are, still, in a league of their own.
Special Guest Appearance by: Dave Elwood, Head Coach Team England
In the final we faced The Netherlands, part of this new wave of European growth, and surprise conquerors of Germany in their semi final game. Formed around a strong core of US based players, but well supported by some home grown freaky deaky Dutch boys.
The game was over as a contest after a sensational performance by our team in the first 20 minutes. This was the coming together of everything we had practised, a perfect execution of our game plan with all parts of the team firing on all cylinders. Special teams bossing face off possession, outstanding individual and team defence, athletic and crafty midfield play, crisp confident attack play. Ball movement. Player movement. Extra pass. Picking corners.
The cherry on the icing came when Captain Tom Williamson swept up a loose ground ball on our restraining line, used his outstanding speed to accelerate between the riding midfielders, and then rifled a shot past the shell shocked Dutch goalkeeper. Sweet.
In the 2nd quarter all credit to the Netherlands team who rallied as our intensity lowered, and thereafter the game was much closer, England scoring a further 7 goals with just 3 against.
On the final whistle I was showered with ice from the team water bucket, and as we danced the merry jig of champions we could all reflect on the satisfaction of a job well done. The support of Matt Nugent and Rachel Lazenby as Physio and as Trainer has been invaluable and saw us reach the final game (our 8th game in 10 days) with all players still fit and ready to play. Tour Manager Ravi "Baggie" Sitlani has made telling contributions in all kinds of areas from scouting the Netherlands team to organising the pizzas. A real team effort.