U16 WOMEN TITLE GAME
By Mark Woods
Arvid Diels will coach for 40 minutes, at least, on Sunday to deliver the Under 16 European Championship for Women to Belgium. It's not much, after five years of labour to get here.
When he first became involved with the country's national teams eight years ago, there were few expectations and little tradition. Yet in Cagliari, after ten days of intense competition, the tournament finale will pit the two dominant forces in junior basketball against each other.
That Spain, the presumed favourites, are involved will surprise no-one, given the monopolistic tendencies they have shown all summer in championships across the continent. As for Belgium, who'd have thought? But with the U18 title already secured, this is certainly not a one time deal
|Belgium will have to stop the prolific scorer Maria Arrojo|
The seeds, Diels declares, were sown when he and his colleagues took a long hard look at their own structure, and those of the very best. Radical change was required if they were to make an impact at home and abroad. A lack of practice time, and the chance to work properly on their development, was holding their prospects back.
No longer. "So we have 20 girls in a full programme," Diels outlines. "They have schedules. We've made agreements so they can practice for 24 hours per week and nine of our girls here are signed up. It's the same with the Under 18s. Is that success? Well, we're practicing more and we're winning more. And when you start winning games, you receive invitations to face bigger countries."
Diels, who also coaches the senior women's team as well as acting as the technical director for the Flemish part of Belgium, had never intended to take a hands-on role with the country's internationalists of the future. But without a place in EuroBasket Women in Poland this summer, he had time to spare and there was a vacancy on the sidelines.
"It wasn't in my personal game plan or life plan," the 33-year-old admits. "But I've taken so much pleasure in it." Before coming to Sardinia, the Belgians under-scored their talent with victory in the European Youth Olympics. Here, despite losing their opening game to Sweden, they have managed to grind out seven successive wins. Unlike the Spanish, unbeaten and rarely tested, they have had to fight to progress, hitting a last second three-pointer to see off France in the quarter-finals before battling past Italy at the penultimate stage.
"We have a young group with a lot of potential," Diels states. "So this means more for Belgium than me because I've been working on this for eight years now, sometimes as the technical director, sometimes as a coach. So it's more for Belgium than for me."
Two years ago, when the U16 Europeans were staged in Naples, the final opponents were the same and Spain prevailed. Diels was there but as a spectator. His wife was the assistant coach. Sunday, he confirms, is not about revenge.
"I'm really glad we can compete against countries like Spain and France. That's something great for us as a small country. We're trying to grow individual talents but the last few years, we've been able to build good teams too."
However in Cagliari, Belgium has benefitted from the impressive Hind Ben Abdelkader, the shooting guard averaging a team-best 19 points per game as the fulcrum of her team's offense. In the final, Diels concedes, someone else will likely have to step up to match the multiple weapons of Spain.
With eight consecutive victories, they will be the deserved favourites but Spanish coach Evaristo Perez will take nothing for granted. "There'll be the emotions which always come in a final," he says. "It's not just any other game. Belgium has been among the favourite since the very start and they're such a solid team, that they'll be tough."
Having pushed themselves every day, through training camp, preparation tournaments and, finally, the championships, it all comes down to one game for both teams. Belgium staked its future on ensuring its players were ready for anything. Now, once again, they have an opportunity to repay that faith.
The cultural shift of recent years means that Diels, and his players, will not come content to take the silver medal. And the reluctant coach likes the match-up Spain presents.
"I think our style of playing basketball is similar: up-tempo, working hard on defence, getting steals, making lay-ups," he outlines. "I think we maybe have more threats in outside shooting. But it might come down to who makes the better start.
"Spain hasn't been pushed to the finish so far in this championship. Our goal is to make them think on the court. I hope we can make it a good game for the fans here because I believe Belgium is the best opponent to compete against Spain."
40 minutes will decide just how far they have come.