Monday, August 24, 2015

European Games 2015: Triumphs and Controversies

By Abby Whiteley

On 25–26 July 2015, the inaugural European Games were held in Sarteano, Italy. Teams representing 12 European nations came together in the first tournament of its kind to play for the title of European champions. After a nail-biting final against the United Kingdom, France took the championship 80*-40, which followed its victory at the 2015 European Quidditch Cup (EQC) and established its position as the strongest quidditch nation in Europe. This tournament brought with it fantastic matches and exciting indications for the development of quidditch in Europe, as well as  a couple of controversies along the way. Here we will look at the performances of each national team and break down some of the conversations brought on by the tournament.

Team France | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

Team performances
Mostly, teams delivered what was expected of them. France and the UK played an exciting final with flair; that these two teams would be the ones to make it to the final was unsurprising, and they both demonstrated the high quality level of play which had been anticipated from them. Norway, despite some tricky losses before the tournament, earned its third place title with some stellar play and an incredible level of fitness and skill, doing justice to the increasingly large presence of the sport in the region. Belgium simply had an astounding tournament; although it left without medals, the team finished its semifinal against the UK in SWIM range with a final score of 80*-40, and it only slipped out of SWIM range against Norway in the third place consolation match

Italy’s performance was consistent with its EQC record, where Green-Tauros Quidditch Torino finished just outside of the quarterfinals. Italy brought a solid performance to the tournament and clearly demonstrated it has much more potential than previously assumed. Its choice to cold catch against Belgium was thought-provoking, although it is understandable that the team wanted to finish the tournament on its own terms. Turkey has been an interesting case on the international stage this season. It is unfortunate that no Turkish team has yet gained a podium finish in a tournament of this scale, the result of practical difficulties and bad tournament luck. At EQC, the METU Unicorns drew an unfortunate pool against two of the top four teams at the tournament due to an incomplete seeding system, and were relegated to the lower bracket despite an excellent performance. Struggles with travels and expenses plagued the Turkish national team leading up to the European Games, and the teamalthough still a great showcase of Turkey’s quidditch strengths was not representative of all the country has to offer. Here’s hoping that Turkey will fare better next season, and be able to show everything it is capable of.

Team Turkey versus Team France | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

Catalonia and Germany each did very well to make the quarterfinals. Catalonia improved its notoriously shaky seeking record with catches against Poland and Spain, although it struggled against Belgium. Catalonia’s matchup against Spain demonstrated the best of both teams, and Catalonia did well to pull away in a match that threatened to get the better of it in the first half. Germany impressively held its own against Italy, and was only 40 points behind when Italy caught the snitch. Germany also banked its QPD against Ireland to grab fourth place in its pool and earn itself a match against France the following morning. It was a great performance for a nation relatively new to quidditch, and has secured Germany’s place as a country to watch in the 201516 season.

Unfortunately, the Netherlands did not get a quarterfinals slot, but it did manage a good snitch record; it caught two of the three snitches in its games, including a SWIM win against Ireland. It also managed to hold off Italy with some success; Italy was 70 points ahead when it caught the snitch to end the game, which demonstrates an admirable resilience in the Dutch defence. Poland, the smallest team in the tournament with no subs at all, suffered three blowouts in the pool stages which resulted in it being knocked out on the first day. But the perseverance of the tiny squad to even make it to the end of the day, as well as its managing to put up 10 points against France, means Poland should be proud of itself. Jagoda Sedecka said she hopes Poland will have four teams for next season, which would be an amazing rate of growth for the country.

Team Netherlands | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

It was fantastic to see Spain and Ireland make the tournament, after neither managed to send a team to EQC. Spain demonstrated some real potential, losing to Turkey by only 70 points (including Turkey’s snitch grab) and getting 70 points against Catalonia. It will hopefully follow Germany and the Netherlands in elaborating its league enough to be able to attend EQC 2016. Ireland struggled against the more established countries, but its presence is encouraging, and it would be great to see it develop its league in the upcoming season.

One can observe a definitive divide between the top four teams and the other eight. No quarterfinal finished with a QPD fewer than 80 points, and two of them finished with a difference of 160 points (UK vs. Catalonia and France vs. Germany). This divide is largely along the lines of the respective countries’ development; the four top teams have well-established NGBs and have existed for at least two years, whereas most of the other nationswith the exceptions of Italy and Cataloniahave either existed for less than a year, or do not have enough teams for an established league. The national tournament for the UK had 23 teams present, while Norway and France had 11 and 10 each respectively, and Belgium was an outlier with only three. (It should be noted that Belgium fosters a divide in competitive and recreational teams, and several recreational teams exist in the region.) Broadly speaking, these are the nations that everyone expected to do well, due to their performances at EQC and the fact that their NGBs support a competitive environment, so there were few upsets at this tournament.

Team Norway | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

Comparison with EQC
The final rankings at the European Games correspond very closely to those produced at the European Quidditch Cup. France and the UK took the first and second slots respectively, with Norway and Belgium occupying a slightly lower tier together. One can even use the EQC results to predict Norway would beat Belgium, if only narrowly, by virtue of the fact that the highest-ranked Norwegian teamNTNUI Rumpeldunk—came fifth, and its Belgian equivalentDeurne Dodo Afinished sixth. It is possibly a stretch, but the fact that the UK had 70 percent of its teams in the upper bracket at EQC whilst France had 80 percent could be taken as a foreboding that France would take the final. But this is a more tenuous inference, especially since no members of the Lille Black Snitches made an appearance on France’s roster.

Italy and Turkey come next, both having finished third in their pools at the European Games. Italy lost its quarterfinal by 90 quaffle points, and Turkey by 80, although Italy also caught the snitch in its game against Belgium. Italy’s top team at EQC, Green-Tauros Quidditch Torino, finished nine places ahead of Turkey’s METU Unicorns, which is a much larger gap than that found between their national squads at the European Games. It should be taken into account, though, that Turkey’s sole representatives at EQC had both Titans Paris and third-placed Southampton Quidditch Club 1 in its group on Day One at EQC, which left it with a final ranking not befitting its performance.

Team Italy | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

Based on EQC performances, one would expect Catalonia and Germany to finish in similar positions, given that their highest-ranked teamsthe Barcelona Eagles and Unisport-Zentrum Darmstadt, respectivelyfinished 21st and 22nd at that tournament. This was seen again in the European Games results: the countries both came fourth in their respective pools, Catalonia with -40 QPD and Germany with -20, and both lost their quarterfinals with a -160 QPD. The Netherlands also finished pool play with a better QPD than Poland, mirroring the North Sea Nargles finishing EQC one place above the Quidditch Hussars.

The startling predictability of nations’ performances at European Games on the basis of EQC is a fascinating feature of this season. It can be explained mostly by a lack of depth; the key players of the best teams often made appearances on the national teams, thus creating consistency between EQC squads and those at European Games. This is particularly true for smaller nations with shallower player pools, but it still stands for the teams with the most choice at their disposal. Central players from Titans Paris dominated the playing style for France, and members of the Radcliffe Chimeras and Southampton Quidditch Club 1 constituted around half of the UK’s team. With the same faces appearing at the centre of both EQC and European Games squads, it is unsurprising that the two tournaments generated similar results. This is something that will continue to happen until the talent in at least two or three countries diversifies to the extent that large chunks of the national team are not chosen from the same squads, preferably with a maximum of two or three people from each home team. At an estimate, such a playing environment will not be seen in Europe for the next couple of years, although the growth in the UK indicates it will be the first nation to approach this level of depth. Therefore, whatever results come about at EQC 2016 are likely to be mirrored in the Global Games of the same year.

Team UK | Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

The nature of national teams
It is impossible to discuss Sarteano without discussing France’s team, the very mention of which invites rumination on the controversy that sprung up around its selection. Only 3 of 11 teams were represented in the French squad: Titans Paris, Paris Frog, and Crookshanks Lyon. Around half of the squad consisted of players from the current European Champions, Titans Paris, and the rest of the players were taken from the next two strongest French teams. This sparked a lot of debate around the subject of the nature and priorities of national teams. On one hand, the argument goes that national teams exist to showcase the best a country has to offer, regardless of the provenance of that talent; on the other hand, people make the case that in a developing sport it is important to involve as many teams as possible.

This is not a new debate. It pulls in many of the most emotive and central aspects of the sport: the drive to improve, the desire for recognition, the cost of being the best, and the perception of community. People want their national teams to do well because it reflects upon the whole country, and to many people the thought of deliberately cutting the wings of a national squad for a didactic purpose would be unimaginable. However, others perceive betrayal in nations that prioritise competition over supporting the community. The whole debate is complicated and difficult to untangle. First of all, it is useful to look at other teams at European Games and last year’s Global Games, which faced similar issues.

Case studies
Belgium at the European Games
Belgium was arguably the team that best balanced the dual issue of competition and representation. With a deliberate focus on team diversity, eyebrows were raised at the low numbers of players from Deurne Dodo A and the Brussels Qwaffles, the two strongest teams in Belgium. Seven of eight Belgian teams were represented, as well as two UK teams, and Belgium gave Norway a fantastic game in the third place consolation match, missing the third-place spot by 70 points, including Norway’s snitch grab. This included rallying after a game-ending injury to key player Nathan Wilputte, and coming back from 100 behind to just 10 out of snitch range. The team managed to balance competitive strength with diverse representation without resorting to quotas. It is likely Belgium will see the rewards of having a high concentration of national team players throughout the country, sharing the glory together and offering new knowledge to their home teams. This is something some people in France wanted for their national team and did not see delivered.


UK at the European Games
In the midst of this debate, the United Kingdom has been used by some as an exemplar of team diversity, with nine teams represented in the squad of 21. This means 39 percent of all teams whose players were eligible for selection were represented in the national team. However, this is simply symptomatic of the fact that the UK has over twice the number of teams of any other nation in Europe. Although it is excellent that national-level talent is found in such a broad range of teams, it is not entirely fair to expect other nations with less than half the player base to contrive a similar diversity. The UK selection committee did not choose players from lower-ranked teams as an act of generosity or as part of an agenda for diversity; they were chosen because they deserved to be. Whilst it will be desirable for other nations to emulate this depth, it is not fair to hold them to the same expectation at this point.

USA at the 2014 Global Games
An interesting contrast can be made here with the selection process for USA’s Global Games team, where strict quotas were placed on regional and team-specific representation. No more than two players from the same home team could be taken on, and no fewer than two per region. This is because the US could be confident that it would be at a much stronger level than any other nation there, and therefore prioritised representation over pure skill. The strength of its player base allowed the country to be confident that even representatives from weaker teams would still be threatening on an international stage. Therefore, as a move both to appease members and to showcase talent from across the board, this was a prudent move from USQ. It had no didactic intent or need, which is the primary source of conflict in Europe, but it was nevertheless a good move. France, however, was not in this comfortable position of assumed superiority, so such a quotawhich has hitherto been proposed by critics of the French selectionwould likely have done more harm than good on a competitive front. Whether this potential weakening of the squad would have been worth itwhether it would be better for France to have focused on developing its league throughout, as well as pacifying teams across the countryis a judgement which depends on where one thinks a national team’s priorities should lie.

2014 Global Games Team USA | Photo Courtesy of Kean Goh

The issue of growth
In a nascent sport such as quidditch, there is no easy answer. Expansion is always at the forefront of communities’ minds, from new and struggling teams right up to the NGB. This sport can only survive with growth in both quality and quantity. It cannot attract more players, attention, and possible funding if it does not prove itself as a sport worth investing time and money into, and quality of competition is inherent to that perception. Making national teams the best they can be is part of demonstrating this heightened level of competition, and so they do aid growth in this way. But it is sometimes at the expense of enabling promising players from struggling teams to spur on their growth and, by extension, their club’s improvement. For sustainable growth to happen, teams need to improve at the grassroots level, and it is understandable that some people believe this falls within the remit of national teams.

Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

Perhaps the best solution is to allow national teams to choose the best players, regardless of where they are from, and improve infrastructure throughout the NGB with aid for new or struggling teams, so that the didactic weight falls on regulated programmes rather than involvement in national teams. It is difficult to know whether this would emulate the benefits of playing at a very competitive, international level, which does improve players at an extraordinary rate, but it would resolve the conflict of interest concerning national teams. Furthermore, the problem should be naturally alleviated somewhat as international play becomes more common and available to ordinary players, which will place the responsibility for accessing international tournaments more solidly in the hands of individuals.

However, this demands a level of complexity and time investment in the NGB which most European nations are not equipped to provide yet, and therefore the national squads will remain a battleground of competitiveness versus didacticism until the NGBs are equal to the task. Even the Hooch initiative in QuidditchUK, the closest approximation to what I am proposing, is barely regulated and only applies to new teams, which does not help struggling teams which have existed for over a year. With relatively few opportunities for expansion and competition, a disproportionate amount of weight falls on national teams to be everything for their nation: they must represent both the breadth and depth of the nation’s quality; they must perform to the highest level they can with little room for error; they must be chosen with methods which are transparent and defensible from every angle; and they must, in short, be everything to everyone, from the stars of the strongest teams to the teachers for the weakest. It is easy to see why some communities feel they fall short of this incredibly high bar.

European Games shone light on a variety of issues facing European quidditch and even the worldwide scene lately. Although the final rankings of the tournament were somewhat predictable, this simply demonstrates that European quidditch is building up enough tournaments and data that such events can be predicted, which is an exciting move forward from last year and something which is only going to improve in the upcoming seasons. European Games was undoubtedly a landmark event for European quidditch, demonstrating the incredible expansion and improvement that the continent has been undergoing for the past year. It was not without controversy, but the overall message to take from this European Games is that it has been a huge success, not only as an organisational feat but also as an indicator of just how much potential Europe has for the foreseeable future.


Photo Courtesy of Ondrej Hujnak

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