Portugal is still a young country in Ultimate terms. The sport was introduced to the country by a reasonably small number of people in 1995, and is still trying to grow to the level of other European countries.
Portugal played in the Mixed division at the 2016 World Ultimate and Guts Championships in London, the first-ever grass tournament for the national team, and finished a highly-creditable 13th, ahead of nations like New Zealand, Switzerland and Denmark who have much more history in the seven-player version of the sport. The beach, though, is where Portuguese Ultimate has always thrived.
The first World Championship of Beach Ultimate (WCBU) was held in Portugal in 2004. The USA narrowly won the Men’s and Women’s divisions, their triumphs the start of what would become a theme, while Germany won what was then called the Coed division by beating GB in the final. The host nation played in two divisions but finished eighth in the Men’s division and 14th (of 14) in the Coed division.
Within 7 years, they became a powerhouse on the beach circuit. A fourth-place finish in the Mixed division at WCBU in 2011 announced that to the rest of the world, and similar finishes followed at the European Championships of Beach Ultimate (ECBU) in 2013 and WCBU in 2015. At WCBU in Royan two years ago, they slipped to eighth in a highly competitive division, but competed at the highest level with nations recognised around the world as the strongest – beating Great Britain and Australia, and losing narrowly to Canada, Germany and fellow beach experts Russia.
That’s a huge distance to cover in a relatively short period of time. How have they done it, and what comes next? I spoke to some people who could shed some light on Portuguese Ultimate.
Sofia Pereira has been around since the beginning. When they moved to Portugal, she and BULA majordomo Patrick van der Valk brought with them a love of Ultimate. She says: “Patrick and I moved to Portugal in the summer of 1995. We quickly moved the disc to the beach.
“First, there are not that many large grass fields in the Lisbon area, and there are definitely some great beaches! Then, you need fewer players for a scrimmage on sand. Sometimes we didn’t have that many in the early days. And finally, even if people are late or end up not showing up, the beach is not a bad place to hang out and throw when there were not enough players even for a three on three.”
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the first tournament was held in Portugal; Bar do Peixe, featuring around 60 players mostly from abroad. Development in the first few years was slow, but gradually national tournaments for indoor, grass and beach Ultimate began to happen and the game spread to other cities – Leiria and Palmela, both reasonably close to Lisbon. Monthly hat tournaments at Meco beach, about 40km south of Lisbon, added to the growth of local players and added another arena for players to develop their skills on the beach.
In 2001, the first Portuguese national team attended a tournament in Spain. In 2004, the country hosted WCBU. Patrick, who then as now was involved in running BULA – the Beach Ultimate Lovers Association – remembers the difficulty in pulling the event together:
“The Portuguese Beach Ultimate community was instrumental on how well the first World Championship worked out in 2004. What many people don’t know is that a professional event organizer, who was the reason we started the event, pulled out 8 weeks before the event started! This left around 30 almost novice players to scramble and jointly organize a large international event that was never organized before. And they did an amazing job!”
From there, the community continued to thrive. A national beach Ultimate league was started in the same year with four teams – two from Lisbon and two from Palmela. The league continued to grow, and today features 10 teams from across the country. The community in Portugal features only around 150 players, making their two fourth-place finishes in international competition all the more remarkable.
Jose Pedro Amoroso is the current president of the Portuguese FDF. He’s the man charged with driving forward Portuguese Ultimate, and building on the successes they’ve had in recent years. He has some ambitious plans for the future – including developing the sport in schools and universities across Portugal.
The Portuguese association has applied to the government for Ultimate and other disc sports to be part of the curriculum in schools, and Jose explains that the development of the university division is a key priority: “Last year we had three teams in the university championships, and this year we are expecting four or five. We are trying to establish a protocol with the Federation of University Sports to keep building, and we are trying to set up a meeting with the secretary of state and other important people to launch a new leaflet to explain Ultimate.”
With more and more young people playing the sport, high-quality teams and players to pass on experience and inspiration and support from university and government bodies, the development that Jose is looking to foster could come sooner and quicker than it has in the past.
Portugal may still be a young Ultimate nation, but with the rate they have developed to this point and their plans for youth involvement and development, it’s a good bet that Portuguese players will be competing for medals more medals in the future – both on the beach and off it.
Featured image by Deepthi Indukuri.