While not interested in passing definitive judgment, we think it would be useful and fair to take a look at the European basketball panorama. There will be no ratings or rankings here, just a snapshot of what the most important ballin’ countries offer us.
Ten years into the third millennium, it’s common to hear repeated concepts about European community and a sense of brotherhood, but the idea of “European basketball” elicits language only indicating something is wrong. Disunity: That’s the main word for the variety of ways to develop basketball in Europe. European basketball was well on its way until five to six years ago, when internal division began to decrease European ball’s opportunity to become a serious alternative to a NBA bereft of stories and talent to sell – yes, that was before Lebron James’ era.
Now that Euroleague represents an affirmed reality well-known across the world for its technical high level and solid marketing machine, the situation in its component nations is not so wonderful. Euroleague is merely the peak of a mountain of diverse movement, impressive for its heights but also extreme in its depth. From West to East some balance, a common line running through national borders, would be good. Anyway, here’s the scenario.
Whoever thinks ACB isn’t the best league in Europe, put your hand up! Hmm, I don’t see any hands…
Despite a poor financial situation (Spain is the S of the infamous PIGS nations teetering on the edge of financial insolvency, alongside Portugal, Ireland, and Greece), ACB still holds the European crown for investment, projects, following, and the ability to perpetually draw talent while other states haven’t the capacity to renew themselves.
Spain shines on, counting on a generation of players born in the 1980s able to win club trophies over individual awards, but the workings dedicated to making Spain the European basketball leader were begun long ago. When an ACB club decides to build its own modern arenas or drastically renovate its extant venue, it keeps an eye on the NBA model, i.e. the stadium is built with additional earning potential in mind alongside entertainment value.
So the ACB isn’t lacking in advertisers/sponsors, its website is seen as a masterpiece of its genre (perhaps even better than Euroleague.net) and at the same time continues to show a mode of basketball no one else on The Continent can boast. In the past five years, four different teams (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Malaga, Baskonia) have won the Spanish title, while there have been two victories and 13 qualifications to the Final Four or Finals in the two major European competitions. Even this year, all eight Spanish teams involved in Euroleague and Eurocup (FIBA Eurochallenge is a small market for them) advanced at least to the second round, with six of the eight winning their respective groups in pool play.
Going into the Copa del Rey tournament, 10 points separate the top four clubs in the ACB standings – Regal FC Barcelona is tops, while Valencia, who has beaten Barça this season, is in fourth place – and it just so happens that Xavi Pascual’s team could lose to Gran Canaria, if not beating them by a 50-point margin in their rematch. Obraidoro’s case can be attributed to previous management; a sign of ACB supremacy in 2010 was also the Spanish National Cup quarterfinal draw – made at the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao and shown live on ACB.com.
Meanwhile, the Italian national cup itself was in doubt for 2010 until 20 days ago thanks to economic reasons and an absurd discussion about the neutrality of the venue: This was the final blow to the credibility of a movement that was the European benchmark in the 1990s.
Things changed for Italy in a hurry, beginning in that summer of 2003, when Virtus Bologna’s glorious existence was forcedly interrupted. That was the first step of a terrible and not-yet-complete phase characterized by collapse (Capo d’Orlando, Fortitudo Bologna, and thank you, Mr. Giorgio Armani, for saving Milano), mountains of misused money (Roma, Treviso) and ridiculous situations (this year’s Napoli, heir of Rieti): It all makes one suspect about the growth of a strange relationship between Gaetano Papalia and the Federation.
From within this sadness, a ray of light emerges and that’s Montepaschi Siena. But should Montepaschi be considered a monster, an happy exception, or a black sheep? Consider the team’s three consecutive titles; the 12-point advantage they currently hold over the league’s no. 2 (Caserta, which was playing in Legadue two years ago!); the four games – including the playoffs – lost in the last four years … these numbers show that Siena is a Gulliver in the middle of Lilliput, that Serie A is no longer the competitive league as we described it in the last century.
In Serie A, there is no longer competition, no seriousness: Every year the rules regarding US and EU players are changed (probably as a paean to some agent or president) and stories of penalization due to missed fiscal payments continue. Where is the FIP when it has to check all the counts? Don’t they know the image of a league is not merely about results on the court?
Freshly named FIP president Dino Meneghin will struggle to put Italy back into its formerly held position, and the first decision, i.e. Simone Pianigiani to head up the Italian national team, goes in another long-awaited direction. So, Italy’s been surpassed by Spain. And the rest?
In Greece, ESAKE is undermanned to break the domination of Panathinaikos-Olympiacos. The league opened its doors to an one extra EU player per team, but it wasn’t enough: The Greens and Reds are still one or two steps ahead. Greece’s national teams and youth squads are at the top in international competition, and that’s good when it comes to forming players ready for the best European leagues, but Greece doesn’t have the makings of a healthy basketball country.
The season started with a strike in week four, with players demanding that clubs guarantee their entire budgets (at present, they guarantee just 10%); that change is made to the insane rule disallowing Greek players from joining a Greece-based team once the season has begun; and that more certainty about players’ assurance is provided. How much have these questions been welcomed? As though insufficient, an air of the 1980s seems unwilling to leave HEBA, nor does fan aggression (the last unleashed on local journalists by AEK Athens supporters during a match against Olympiacos) and continuous delay in player payments (again AEK comes to mind, but this is hardly the only club doing so).
Turkish basketball is all about Cemal Nalga. Putting aside Besiktas and Banvit, new names joining the traditional Efes Pilsen/Fenerbahce Ulker race, the headlines are reserved for a bad story which has screwed up the country’s entire basketball scene.
Last summer, Galatasaray center Cemal Nalga was ejected in a friendly match against Cibona Zagreb. He received a five-game suspension, but with the option to include preseason games against the allotted penalty. In response, Nalga immediately returned to play *with a different number and name on his jersey!* The 207-centimeter tall Nalga became 200-cm tall forward Tufan Ersoz, Nalga’s injured teammate. As a result, Nalga was available for the first week of Turkish League, because he had “paid” his suspension before the season started!
Incredibly, Oyak Renault’s petition on the matter was ignored, and it was up to independent website Salsa Basket to reveal the deception. Since then, the TBL woke up and suspended Nalga for two years (in fact he’s now playing in Germany with Alba Berlin), poor Ersoz for four months, coach Okan Cevik for three years, GM Yigit Sardan for six months, and managers Mert Uyguc and Koray Mincinozlu for two years. A massacre. Galatasaray was additionally given a five-point penalization and a loss for every game played, i.e. the team’s first six, by Nalga, and was banned from participation in the Turkish National Cup final eight. That’s not fantasy.
So, what’s the ballin’ European country which can answer “Fine, thanks” to an innocuous “How are you?” Spain is not ill, that’s for sure, even if it has some skeletons to hide (e.g. referee Dani Hierrezuelo who suspended the Cajasol Sevilla-Suzuki Manresa game because “people threatened me with death”; the ungrateful treatment Bizkaia Bilbao gave to its creator Txus Vidurreta).
However, if we don’t limit our view to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, there’s also a French League that has had seven different champions in the last eight years (and many other problems, like the plummet of once noble clubs such Limoges and Pau Orthez to hell; an incomprehensible playoff format featuring a one-game final; the absence of a team which can assemble the prospects INSEP produces year after year). And the Adriatic and Baltic leagues aren’t succeeding in luring money and interest even if they were born for it. Still further East, we have to say Russian dream is near the end, as CSKA Moscow and BC Khimki resist but around these clubs is nothing.
I mean, European basketball is still alive. Some nations will always feel better than others, but the desired sense of equality is too distant to come true right now. A little bit of guilt is reserved specially for those who founded Euroleague, unable (or not bothered) to understand that the essence of basketball is not made simply by the best 16 teams of The Continent.
— written by Francesco Cappelletti