Ahead of Wednesday’s two Olympic men’s basketball quarter finals, Emmet Ryan looks at yet another clash between Europe’s arch powers
Every EuroBasket title since 2009, one silver medal, two bronzes, a World Cup bronze on enemy territory, a shot to the googlies en route to an Olympic exit. Spain and France have been through a lot on the road to Wednesday’s clash in Rio and are pretty sick of the sight of each other in major championships by now.
It has only once gone to plan. In EuroBasket 2011, the qualifying year for London, Spain got to the final without taking out France along the way. They still beat Les Bleus, a 96-69 hammering in the second phase, but both sides made it back to the decider and punched their tickets to the Olympics. Spain won, taking a second consecutive championship. This was the lone time everything went to plan.
Instead, for most of their careers, the older core of this French side has been forced to endure Spain getting in the way. In Poland 2009, having run to the quarter finals without a blemish, the French were ‘rewarded’ with a clash against the reigning world champions who had taken silver in Beijing a year before. The 5-0 record counted for nothing, Spain took it 86-66 and rode it to their first every European title.
The golden generation struck again in London 2012. France secured second spot in their group behind the USA, theoretically earning an easier route to the semi finals. Spain had other ideas, having won their first two group games with relative ease they barely survived against hosts Great Britain and subsequently fell to Russia next time out. A subsequent loss in the final group game to Brazil relegated Spain to third. Third was theoretically better than second as it meant avoiding the USA until the final but the crucial factor was that it meant they faced France again and things got testy fast.
Spain won again, not before Nicolas Batum tested the durability of Juan Carlos Navarro’s meat and two veg.
Batman’s dick punch symbolised all of France’s frustration as the perennial loser in their rivalry with Spain. Another win for Spain, 66-59, a second straight Olympics on the podium too as they took silver once more. France and Tony Parker remained trophyless.
The demons finally looked to be disappearing as the decade wore on. France finally won against Spain when it mattered, in comfortably one of the worst EuroBasket semi finals I’ve ever witnessed, to make the final in 2013 and eventually take the title. A year later, in a similarly aesthetically awful game of basketball, France beat Spain on their own turf. It was meant to be the crowning glory for the Golden Generation but they didn’t even manage a medal on home ground. Spain, at the best, fell to a Parker-less France.
Vincent Collet, Parker, and the rest of Les Bleus had their chance to put a cap on the rivalry last autumn. In front of 27,000 screaming fans in Lille they took the floor with a fresher, fitter, and frankly better performing side than Spain. Just like 2009, the prior records meant nothing. In an individual performance for the ages, Pau Gasol once more tormented France and crushed their dreams.
Now, Pau’s got a shot at taking them down once more. It’s Parker’s last shot at an Olympic medal and even he knows it’s going to take the rest of his side to take him there. Younger men, like Thomas Heurtel and Nando de Colo, look better in the back court than a aged and injured Parker. Meanwhile Jose Calderon has made it clear that Spain know what is needed. The generations are evolving but the rivalry, the battle, it can’t ever end for these nations.
Keep an eye on Kazlauskas
The early game on Wednesday sees an in form Australia take on a Lithuania team that has suffered back to back defeats before stumbling into the quarter finals in third place. An epic beating at the hands of Spain was followed by a poor display against Croatia where only a 26-15 final frame hid the gulf between the sides on the night. Australia meanwhile are being talked up as a side that could give the USA a serious threat in the gold medal game, having run Coach K’s charges close and dominated the rest of the group.
Yeah, the Boomers should be legitimately terrified.
There was a moment right after the EuroBasket semi final between Lithuania and Serbia last autumn, where Lithuania stunned to up to then unstoppable Serbians, where Jonas Kazlauskas jogged through the mixed zone. He had a grin like the Cheshire Cat, another big one had gone his way when it absolutely had to. Luck helps but you can plan for luck and Kazlauskas knows what he needs to do to ensure that, if the breaks are there, his side takes them on Wednesday. The early game is going to be a belter