Friday 14th October saw me rise early to catch a flight from Manchester to Madrid for my first trip as Head Coach of the Spain Men’s National Lacrosse Team, attending the Copa de España.
Held in Cuenca, a beautiful city 100 miles outside of Madrid set in the hills of Castilla-La Mancha, the Copa de España is the pre-eminent tournament in Spanish lacrosse which sees teams from all over the country assemble to battle it out for the honour of becoming the much-coveted national tournament champions.
With 7 men’s teams made up from major cities including Alicante, Barcelona, Bilbao, Cuenca, Gijon, Madrid, Salamanca and Sevilla, the tournament was a display of Spanish passion, pride and potential and the games were hard-fought and fast-paced throughout.
Arriving early morning in Madrid, I met with the Team Spain Captain and one of the team’s defenders and was given a whistle-stop walking tour of the city, a place I had only previously been once before, taking in the stunning sights of the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor, countless museums and wonderful buildings and architecture including the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple which was dismantled and re-constructed in 1970 after Spain was gifted the UNESCO heritage sight by the Egyptian State.
After taking in the sights, we picked another couple of team members and set off on the ninety-minute drive over to the national park in Cuenca in which we were staying. After partaking in the traditional Spanish fiesta (including more than a few cervezas…), we hit the sack and awoke early to drive across to the fields where the tournament was held.
With the teams made up of a blend of pure rookies to several Americans and Canadians studying and working in Spain as well as other Europeans from Germany, Poland & The UK, the ability level was mixed, but the commitment and desire on show was unquestionable, as evidenced by the Barcelona team setting off on the team bus at midnight on the Friday in order to get to the site on time for the Saturday morning fixtures!
Set against the beautiful backdrop of Cuenca hills, the games were played on turf fields between alternating fixtures of men’s and women’s teams, with crowds gathering to watch and support each step of the way. Starting at 9AM and running until 9PM, the day was long but fun and the talent was prevalent for all to see. Plus, with me coming from England, spending the day in T-shirt and shorts in blazing sunshine in the middle of October was somewhat of a novelty and certainly helped to make the occasion even more enjoyable!
After having dinner together back at the campsite, the speakers and decks were brought out, the fiesta started over again and the music, dancing and laughter ran on until the early hours once again – standard protocol for these fun-loving Spaniards!
Sunday saw the play-in games and knockout stages and despite running on only a couple of hours’ sleep, there was no sign of any hangovers as the games kicked off with the intensity I had come to expect from the players and before long we were witnessing goals and games of the highest order with all teams desperate to do all they could to lift the silverware.
After a day of rivalries and battles all played out in front of the growing crowds, the teams were whittled down to the two pre-tournament favourites, Alicante & Sevilla. With Alicante beating Sevilla 8-4 in the group stages, the Sevillanos were desperate to exact some revenge and rushed into a frenetic battle which saw them go toe-to-toe with their rivals throughout the match. Alicante, featuring all-time Spanish goalscoring leader Dani De La Casa as well as Team Wales Face-Off expert Sam Miles and US students Michael Buisan & Nick Konten complimented their foreign contingent with a strong spine of Spanish national team talent including midfield starlet Javier Perez-Coca Rosello and defensive leader Harry Doherty, and their experience and ability was clear for all to see with their slick ball movement and strong shooting decisions from the start.
However, Sevilla were not about to accept defeat and the extra training they had all put in in preparation for the tournament paid off when their leader and captain Carlos Rodriguez Romero put on a talismanic performance in midfield alongside fellow Spanish national team members Antonio Gavira and Javier Dominguez Gutierrez who battled for every ground ball and worked hard for every opportunity throughout.
With Sevilla equalising with one minute on the clock, the game looked set for the crowd-favourite of overtime but Dani De La Casa decided his legs had done enough for the weekend and delivered a crushing blow to the Sevilla hopes, delivering a trademark inside finish to win the game and lift the trophy as campeones.
After saying our goodbyes and picking up a raft of T-shirts to give to my junior players upon my return, we set off into Cuenca for dinner by the cathedral and see the stunning sights of the city before retiring for the night back in Madrid to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Whilst this was my first official engagement as National Team Head Coach for me to scout the team and take notes to build our training programme around, the weekend felt more like a holiday with friends, such was the warmth and welcome that all of the players showed me throughout. I saw some great lacrosse, had a ridiculous amount of fun and whilst my role is to help the guys to learn, at times it felt as though I was the one who was learning the most. The passion, commitment and eagerness the guys show to play the game we all love is a breath of fresh air and in a country where lacrosse isn’t even recognised as a sport, let alone funded, it is this pure love for the game which keeps all of these teams feeling like bands of brothers despite being hundreds of miles apart.
Having assessed the players and tasted the attitude they have towards the game, I returned home desperate to start working with them ASAP. We meet again in January, at which point I will take a team of coaching staff including LTP family with me to deliver a programme tailored to benefit the guys the most. Moving forwards, this will also be opened up to the LTP student base for our students to join in with the journey with us.
European lacrosse is a thing of beauty. We are very lucky to be a part of it.
Hasta Luego Hermanos…