(image courtesy Hurriyet Daily News)

Yes, but *should* they be celebrating?

Winning the EuroChallenge title is a good thing, right? After all, it’s typically the first Continental trophy to display on the mantelpiece and the champions label wins the club to right to play in the more prestigious (and more big-bucks) Eurocup competition the following season.

Well, Uygar Karaca may convince believers otherwise. In the first of a two-part series for BallinEurope.com, Karaca flips through the pages of recent EuroChallenge history to reveal the success – or lack thereof – championship clubs have experienced directly following a title bid. Hint: It’s pretty bleak stuff after 2004. Sorry, Beşiktaş

Winning a competition, especially on the Continental level, is a great achievement. However, titles come with a price. When success exposes players to the market, for example, clubs with better offers take the stars away. Alternatively, in order to get a trophy, clubs sometimes spend more than they can afford, which triggers the process of eventual financial collapse.

In this article, I tried to see whether winning the FIBA EuroChallenge tournament signals brighter days for the club or rather indicates a peak with the way forward pointing downward. In this first part of two, I would like to take a look into the near past to check out the results of recent EuroChallenge title winners directly after taking the championship; we will observe that many of the teams that won the competition did not turn things right in subsequent years. In the second part, I plan to assess Beşiktaş’ recent victory and discuss how we can expect them to fit in the picture.

2004: UNICS Kazan. After hosting the Final Four and winning their biggest European crown ever, Unics Kazan increased its level of success. After long years spent in Eurocup play, the Tataristan-based club managed to win the second-tier competition in 2011 and was applauded in this year’s Euroleague competition. Kazan’s rivals in the 2004 final, Maroussi BC, has managed to earn Euroleague bids, but has not yet again seen the final four in any ULEB competition. Following the EuroChallenge runner-up season, the club has had big financial problems and this year could not stand them no longer; for 2012-13 Maroussi will play in Greece’s second division or will be disbanded.

[Says Wikipedia, in part: “...after the withdrawal of financial support of the Vovos family in 2010, {Maroussi} was disqualified from European arenas, barely managing to gather the funds necessary for participation in the Greek professional league. ... During the [2011-12] season a combination of financial problems and gross mismanagement, the latter creating a series of unfortunate events, led the historical team to its worst record in history.” Yeesh. – Ed.]

2005: Dynamo St. Petersburg. It was the first year of Dynamo St. Petersburg and team was filled with important players such as Kelly McCarthy, Ed Cota and Vladimir Vereemenko. The coach was David Blatt. After the undefeated EuroChallenge campaign in 2004-05, St. Petersburg mayor Valentina Matvienko was very proud. The final four was in İstanbul that year, and Dynamo came back in both the semifinal and final games to take the title: It was the biggest honour in sports for the city in nearly 30 years.

Interestingly, the club both retained its key players and added some more with acquisitions of Eddie Gill, Goran Yeretina and Nikita Morgunov. And then, suddenly, the club ceased to exist due to financial reasons. It was a gap for St. Petersburg itself, later to be filled by Spartak.

2006: Joventut Badalona. Captain Jordi Villacampa became the president of his club Joventut in 1999. Coached in turn by Aito Garcia Reneses, Rudy Fernandez, Marcelo Huertas, Andy Betts, Elmer Benett, Fran Vazquez and others, the club finally won a European competition after 12 years of effort. Joventut further built on their success and, with Ricky Rubio in a starring role, Joventut became 2008 Eurocup champion. Since then, the team has struggled to reach that level, with the best result in reaching the Last 16 stage in Eurocup.

2007: Girona FC Another Spanish crown as former Maccabi Tel Aviv player, 35-year-old veteran Ariel McDonald, was the hero. Among the pupils of Stevislav Pesic leading the Catalonian city to the European title were Marc Gasol, Fernando San Emeterio,Gregor Fucka and Victor Sada. The momentum continued into the next season, with the club reaching Eurocup Finals next year and losing to Joventut Badalona. However, again, they lost the battle of debt. The club, then known by its sponsor Akasvayu, ceased operations in 2008-2009 season. One thing to cheer may be the club’s ability to come back, however: Currently they’re in the LEB Oro, trying to reach the ACB with another kind of organization.

2008: Barons/LMTYarone Arbel of FIBAEurope.com once speculated in an online article whether Latvian basketball was on the rise as the dominance of BK Ventspils finally started to decline. The Barons were brought to the EuroChallenge title in 2008 by their victorious coach, Karlis Muiznieks. The Latvian team was desperately working to bring a European cup to the city of Riga after more than 40 years. Dexia Hainaut Mons, their opponent in the final, decided not to purposely miss a free throw when behind 63-61 in the game’s final seconds and afterward failed to foul. Barons was the winner … but were they? After the title, they won Latvian League two times: In 2008 and 2010. Now? They’ve somehow found themselves in the second division. Luckily, they became the champions there recently.

2009: Virtus Bologna. The name Bologna was almost a synonym with basketball glory in the 1990s and the early 2000s. However, after 2002-2003, the team fell to Italy’s second division because of off-court financial reasons (recall the Sani Becirovic case). Then the club somehow, perhaps due to owner Claudio Sabatini, managed to reenter the European stage. This time, Matteo Boniccioli was the coach instead of Ettore Messina. Many of the basketball enthusiasts met with Keith Langford in the 2009 EuroChallenge Final Four and Sabatini’s club beat Cholet Basket in the final. In following years, Canadian Solar has become the team’s sponsor but the once glorious club has not achieved any more titles. Finishing in seventh or eighth place in the Serie A regular season placement means playing Montepaschi Siena in the quarterfinals and that does not help. Since the EuroChallenge title, bringing in Kobe Bryant has been their biggest dream.

2010: BG Göttingen. One of the most dramatic stories in EuroChallenge history: Göttingen, based in a small university town in Germany and carrying a very limited budget, made it to the finals just after having been promoted to Bundesliga in 2007. Their practice gym was a converted train station and their American coach John Patrick may not have been among Europe’s most famous but nevertheless, purple power ruled in 2009-10.

Apparently, this came with lots of costs. The next season, they had to deal with Beşiktaş, who had added Allen Iverson (or maybe a part of him, since A.I. did not have a chance to make a real impact). Nevertheless, Göttingen managed to advance to the quarterfinal playoffs in the 2010-11 Eurocup and was stopped by Benetton Treviso. In the beginning of this season, Göttingen coincidentally faced Beşiktaş again in EuroChallenge play, but with one difference: Deron Williams, instead of Iverson, was there. Not only were Göttingen eliminated, they’ve also been relegated from the Bundesliga. Like the song says, “That was just a dream…”

2011: Krka Novo Mesto Last season, the Russians were the favourites but the EuroChallenge title went to Slovenia. Krka Novo Mesto, coached by Alexander Dzikic, for the first time since 2003 made it to the finals in a European competition: They beat the odds and won. However, Dzikic departed for Lietuvos Rytas and his replacement Nenad Trajkovic was sacked in the beginning of the season – prematurely in my point of view. In 2011-12, Krka neither managed to advance out of the Top 16 groups nor make an impression in the Adriatic League.

To summarize, it is obvious that something is wrong with winning with EuroChallenge crown. Not only the teams that made it to the finals, but also clubs who made it to the Final Four stage, struggled thereafter. Recall Ural Great, which ceased operations in 2008; BC Kyiv that had to release all foreign-based players in 2009; and BC Azovmash, which recently made headlines with its financial troubles. I don’t say that the reason for these woes was founded in EuroChallenge success, but I wanted to figure out the high correlation.

I did not elaborate a theory, but maybe I can suggest two possible reasons.

First, winning the EuroChallenge reflects that the club spent too much on players. The title is a signal of superior player quality compared to other teams – perhaps more than enough. Of course, if you join EuroChallenge, you weren’t good enough to get into the Eurocup or Euroleague competitions. Therefore, your league position itself is not that good. Sponsors of course look for better league positions and better competitions. If you are stuck with a short-sighted sponsor who wants immediate success, you must be cautious because the money suddenly evaporates if you don’t win anything after a triumphant EuroChallenge season.

Secondly, there is the possibility that the competition is too weak – weak enough for a club that manages to win the cup one year can be relegated the following season. One way or another, one question remains: Is a EuroChallenge title a curse in disguise?

Uygar Karaca is a sportswriter and TV commentator from Istanbul who is enthusiastic about European basketball. Combining the game with history and analysis; nothing is more delicious for the former small forward who is interested in coaching. He has no favourite teams or players; he’s just looking for stories. Karaca earned MA and BA degrees in Economics, explaining his tendency to see the socioeconomic aspects of the game. However, the reasons why he watches 20- and 30-year-old games again and again, looking for old newspapers that write about basketball, are still unknown even to him. The only things he knows for certain about the game is that the Americans invented it and the Yugoslavians perfected it.

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