There are some nations here with a long history of competing at a high level in global Ultimate – Germany, Great Britain, Russia and Sweden among them – and also countries who’ve been staples at beach tournaments for years, like Spain and Portugal. There is, though, one country who have never attended any kind of event before. This is the first time that Luxembourg have appeared at an international event, playing in the mixed division. I spoke to their captain, Piran Merkl, several times over the first few days of the European Beach Ultimate Championships to see what their experience has been like.
Day One: every journey has a beginning
Luxembourg prepared for the tournament by scrimmaging against the Austrians on Saturday and training in the arena ahead of their first match; a streamed encounter with neighbours the Netherlands.
“There was a lot of downtime before our game after the parade,” says Piran, “but I think we managed to get ourselves up for it and were ready for when it started.”
The Dutch game was a tough introduction to this level for Luxembourg, with a talented Dutch side running out 13-1 winners. Piran saw positives, though, and was in an upbeat mood following the game:
“We’re really happy that we fought until the end, every point we were really going for every disc and fighting really hard. I think we could have scored a few more points but that will come as the tournament progresses. It was nice to play the Dutch, they were really fun and were cheering for us as well.”
The team had, up to that point, been encouraged by the reaction they’d received from everyone else playing here in Portimao.
“It’s been really nice around the tournament because people are saying ‘oh you’re playing for Luxembourg, that’s really cool’ and being really encouraging.”
The second day promised more tests – a strong Great Britain was first up, with power pool play set to start later on in the afternoon. Piran started playing Ultimate in the UK and went to university in Durham so was particularly excited about the prospect of playing GB.
Day Two: power pools and learning lessons
Great Britain were as tough as expected, defeating Luxembourg 13-1. Luxembourg did manage to score a point early on, and had a few chances to add to their total but couldn’t quite find the final pass they needed. They followed that with a game against Spain, one of the stronger teams here who were unlucky to encounter a talented French team in the first pool. Spain triumphed 13-2, Luxembourg scoring two late points as they continued to put everything into a game that was lost.
The last game of the day, though, gave them some encouragement. Ukraine went 5-0 up, but Luxembourg switched up the defence and started to pose problems. They scored four of the next six points and brought the score to 7-4 with a zone look that slowed Ukraine down and forced some errors. Ultimately though, the Ukrainians adapted and scored five in a row to win.
“We had a little comeback train in that game, and that’s really positive for later on. We could have scored more points than we did, but we’re building nicely,” said Piran after the game.
At the end of the second day, Luxembourg had played three of the better teams in the division and were starting to see signs that they were coming to grips with the level they needed to play at to push their opponents closer.
“We’ve talked about it and we know there are some teams here we can beat. There is still a lot of belief in the squad, although there was a moment where heads went down in the last game because we were tired. Overall, morale is high.”
While some of the players have experienced at a high level – two played for Slovakia prior to living in Luxembourg and two, Laura Olivieri and Lisa Wohlrab, played for Seagulls at the World Ultimate Club Championships last summer – a number of them have never played a tournament like EBUC before. As well as that, those with experience of international events are in leadership roles they have never experienced before:
“It becomes a lot more stressful for us having to call lines and making sure everyone is playing enough, and everyone is happy, then focusing on playing yourself. You don’t have that when you’re part of a big team, so the people with experience are learning new things too. At the end of yesterday Lucie, the other captain, and I were really, really exhausted because it takes so much energy to raise everyone and call lines and play and everything. Today we’ve improved on that and I feel a lot better personally.”
Day three promised two more tough games; the Czech Republic, against whom the team scrimmaged at Paganello recently, and Italy.
Day three: better results and boosted confidence
On day three, Luxembourg faced Italy and the Czech Republic. They lost both, but were able to take Italy to 3-3, their best start to a game yet. They also came back from 9-0 down, trading out the final eight points for a 13-4 final score. Piran thought there were plenty of positives for his team:
“Italy was a really close, tight game. It was the first game where we didn’t give the other team a big lead at the start, we brought them to 3-3 and were really in the game all the way. Italy had a good spell in the middle where we couldn’t capitalise on a couple of plays near the endzone. It finished 10-5 but we’re happy with how it went. We moved the disc well and turned them over many times. It bodes well for the rest of the tournament.”
The stage that Luxembourg are at in their international development. As one GB mixed player said to them, every nation has been where Luxembourg is at the moment; a small community that’s keen to grow. The development that these players will be able to take from their experience in Portimao will make a huge difference as they move forward.
“I think we are a lot calmer as a team since the start of the tournament,” says Piran. “We are making fewer stupid mistakes. We’re also doing more amazing plays as well. We’re improving with every game we play, which is good for the rest of the tournament. I see a lot of people improving personally too, for example Lisa Houot has only been playing since October and she really came into her own against Italy and scored two points. There are really good signs for us.”
What about the future – is there a prospect of Luxembourg teams playing in future events, either on beach or on the grass?
“The problem with grass is that we don’t have a big enough core of strong players since you need a big roster. For now, I think beach is where we can really try, and hopefully if we recruit some more players and develop the sport we can try grass. Lots of the coaching in Luxembourg comes from me and I’m still motivated and I’m happy about how it’s going.
“But yes, I’m hopeful that we’ll have a team whenever the next beach event comes along, in the next year or two.”