Reflections & ramblings on the Europa Shield

A tournament that captures the essence of korfball

Photo credit: Andreas Voss

Bec Korfball Club came to the 2016 Europa Shield with high hopes. We won the tournament in 2015 and believed with good reason that we could be the first team ever to win it twice in a row. To that end we came close. Painfully close in fact. One goal was all that separated us from KC Barcelona in the final after a dramatic comeback from a five goal deficit. At the time, it was a bitter pill to swallow. However, as I sit here killing time in Düsseldorf airport before my flight back to London I am struck by a couple of things. Firstly, that I am probably the only person to have played in the last six Europa Shields. Secondly, that I am incredibly lucky to have had the chance to do so. This is because to me this tournament embodies three of the things I love most about korfball: competition, friendship and equality

Photo credit: Andreas Voss

Competition

The beauty of sport lies within its competitive nature. Predictable outcomes do not fill stadiums with excited fans or test the capabilities of top players. As a player you want the satisfaction of winning a game you could have lost and as a fan you want the drama that comes from a game that hangs in the balance. As far as korfball goes, it doesn’t get more competitive than the Europa Shield.

As you may well be aware, the top Dutch and Belgian korfball players are a league above everyone else. When they are involved there is always one-sided games and a predictable final. This gap may be slowly closing but the absence of teams from Netherlands and Belgium in the Europa Shield makes for an enthralling competition that any team could win. Edwin Bouman demonstrated this well with some interesting pre-tournament analysis quantifying how much more competitive the Europa Shield is than the Europa Cup. This year proved no exception and the vast majority of games were decided by the finest of margins. The differing paths of Bec and German side TuS Schildgen demonstrated this perfectly. We met in our first game on Friday night and it was only through a last minute equaliser and golden goal winner that we were able to get the better of them. You know how Bec fared in the rest of the tournament but TuS Schildgen, on the other hand, lost two more games by less than two goals and ended up in last place. On a different day, TuS could have scored that golden goal and used the momentum to go on and win the tournament themselves. Again, therein lies the beauty of sport and for me this is a key reason why I love this tournament.

I also believe that this type of intense competition raises the level of the players involved. In this case the players are the so-called “B nation” korfballers that the International Korfball Federation would so love to challenge for World Championship titles. For me this poses a key question for the development of our sport, how do we increase the number of competitive games for these players?

I think another “B nation” tournament of this type but with national teams could prove incredibly popular. Looking to rugby union as an example, the Six Nations tournament is both a hit with fans and a useful tool for the Northern hemisphere teams to experiment with combinations of players and styles of play before taking on the mighty Southern hemisphere teams in the major tournaments like the World Cup. Could this be replicated in korfball?

Photo credit: Andreas Voss

Friendship

Aside from the thrill of a competitive game, the Europa Shield has also reminded me of another reason I love this sport and that’s friendship. From my experience, there is nothing that brings a group of people together like working towards a shared goal. In korfball, this goal is too often a scrap for a bronze medal that is hard to explain to the layman. The Europa Shield provides something different. A shared goal for a gold medal that a team can really get behind and that anyone can relate to. I believe this desire for gold creates a special bond and from my time with Mitcham and Nottingham Korfball Clubs to the last two seasons with Bec, I have been blessed to be in teams with some incredibly impressive people who I am now lucky to call friends.

This year in particular I have been full of admiration for the people who have come away with the squad with little or no chance of playing. Having spoken to them, I know they did so with the sole purpose of supporting the efforts of those who were playing. This selfless attitude from bench players, management team and travelling supporters is a powerful force and I have no doubt that your presence has helped Bec to win both a gold and silver medal in this tournament in the last two years. Again, I am lucky to count you as friends.

Similarly, the Europa Shield has proved a fruitful ground for international korfball friendships. What a blessing it is to play a sport that has provided with me a network of friends in amazing cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Antwerp and Cologne. Many of these friendships have developed over the last ten years as I have moved through age-group korfball. It is amazing to see how we have grown from being the young pretenders at senior tournaments to the decisive players in the tournament defining games. I very much look forward to continuing these competitive but warm relationships with players around the world. After all, it might be a strange little sport but we all love it!

Photo credit: Andreas Voss

Equality

Which moves us onto my final topic, equality of opportunity. And where else can we begin here but with gender equality. Korfball is undeniably a beacon of gender equality in a sporting landscape plagued by gender inequality. Tennis comes close by paying the same prize fees to female players at its major tournaments but if the men’s and women’s finals were on at the same time which do you think would have a bigger following?

Korfball stands in stark contrast to all other sports in this regard in that by definition there must always be gender equality on the court at all times. A top korfball team will only be truly dominant if its male players can outplay their male counterparts at the same time as its female players outplay their female counterparts. The powerful influence of female athletes in our sport was particularly evident at this year’s Europa Shield and the performances of Berta Alomà Sesé were the pinnacle of this. In my view, regardless of gender, she was the most dominant player at the tournament and proved to be the difference in a final between the two best teams present.

This is great for our sport. Young, talented, female athletes should aspire to play korfball as it is a sport where their performances will never be eclipsed by events in the male version of the game. For me, this is without question the biggest selling point of our sport and we need to make a bigger deal of it. How can we make korfball the universally recognised symbol of sporting gender equality? And, if we can achieve this, which corporate and/or governmental bodies would be interested in pinning their colours to this flag? I suspect that many would be and this could be a real driver of growth around the world.

However, it is not just gender equality that was striking at this year’s Europa Shield but also the variety of shapes and sizes of players from the different teams. From the big, powerful boys of Schweriner KC to the small, fast girls of CCCD, there is no one body shape that is best suited to korfball. This made for some fascinating match ups but more importantly proved a timely reminder that korfball truly is a sport for all. Which also got me thinking…

In a world that is facing an ever increasing obesity crisis, how can we build on this “sport for all” mantra and maximise the number of people getting the health benefits of playing korfball? In other words, how can we make it easier, cheaper and less of a commitment to play the sport we all love? Again, I believe that if we can get this right it could be another powerful growth driver for our sport.

Final thoughts

From a personal perspective, falling short at this year’s Europa Shield was frustrating. However, I do not begrudge KC Barcelona for claiming their piece of korfball history. They are a great team and deserved the victory whilst a new name on the trophy only reinforces how exciting and unpredictable this tournament is. I am also thankful for being given a few hours in a German airport to reflect on so much of what is good about our sport . I really can’t think of another tournament that captures the essence of korfball so perfectly.

So here’s to the Europa Shield and long may it continue to thrive. It is, in my opinion, one of our sport’s best adverts.