Spain is one of the more rapidly growing croquet hubs worldwide and have developed and given European croquet some fine players over the past number of years. The Spanish croquet federation has become one of the more serious and respected federations in Europe so there was no doubt this trip with my fellow-Irishmen – Patsy Fitzgerald, Simon Williams and Evan Newell. The venues hosting this years’ European Championships were the Vista Hermosa Golf and Croquet Club in Puerto de Santa Maria and the Pineda Club in Seville with each providing three well-kept lawns for the participants with Pineda only laying their lawns a few months before the championships.
Before play began the 32 entrants from 11 different European nations were treated to a wonderful evening of canapes and cocktails which allowed all players to mingle with one another, making for some interesting croquet stories with plenty of jocularity. Confidence was high when the block-stage finally began on Thursday with myself and my teammates confident with our play leading up to the tournament. The day turned out to be a mixed bag with Simon struggling with the pace of the Pineda lawns and Evan coming up against some difficult competition with one of his hard-fought games being called for time! The fortunes of myself and patsy were much brighter as each of us got off to a flying start allowing for safe passage to the knock-out stages. Friday morning was a much better day for Simon and Evan as Simon fought his way to a playoff match against a very experienced Norwegian international – Roar Michalsen and Evan taking a game of the eventual champion – Jose Alvarez-Sala. Patsy and I continued our solid form throughout the block-stages allowing for all four of the Irish to book places in the championship knock-out! Unfortunately, the friendly atmosphere around the team quickly changed to one of seriousness as Patsy and Simon were pitted against one another in a best of three 13 point championship knockout game which went all the way to hoop 13 of game three with Patsy eventually prevailing after playing some magical shots on the final hoop. Evan came up against ‘El Chapo’ aka Rafael Romero in the championship knockout who had shown flashes of brilliance in the group stages. Romero also had significant Spanish support which inspired him to eliminate Evan in straight games. For myself, the championship knockout was the biggest game of my young croquet career and I came up against a formidable opponent who had won the German open the month previous beating Stephen Mulliner in the final. Fortunately for me, my scoring boots were firmly on and I turned a 5-3 deficit into a 7-5 victory in game 1 and proceeded to win by the same score in game 2.
The quarter-finals took place on Saturday morning with the Spanish support coming out in droves to support their remaining four players, one of which was my opponent – Basilio Iglesias. I have to say my confidence was at an all-time high entering this game and my hoop running and clearances were on point for much of the match. I cruised to a 7-5 victory in game 1 and raced to a 6-4 lead in game 2 which I, unfortunately, ended up squandering after a miss-timed approach to hoop 13! Game 3 saw Basillio grow in confidence making shots from all over the lawn to earn a 7-3 victory in game 3. Patsy’s quarter-final came on later and saw him come up against one of Europe’s most respected players - Stephen Mullinar and former champion of this event. Unfortunately for the Patsy and the Irish Stephen proved too strong and that was the end of our charge.
Once the croquet was done for team Ireland the party in Spain truly began! Saturday evening was the stage for yet another lavish cocktail party where players were treated to a free bar (I still managed to spend money) and some wonderful culinary delights. I have to say this was one of the more interesting nights I have experienced and without going into too much detail it was one for the history books! The final of the championships began at 11 am the following morning and although most of the supporters’ head would have been spinning from the previous night the support was something to behold. The final was contested between Spain’s own – Jose Alvarez- Sala and England’s Stephen Mullinar. Stephen got off to a great start taking a relatively easy 3-1 lead, this must of lit a fire under Jose as he went on to win 6 hoops in a row to win game 1 7-3. The Spaniard then went on to play the highest standard of croquet I’ve ever seen in person en route to winning game 2 7-6 and giving Spain a home victor!
Once the final had concluded it was once again off to the famous beach club for a lavish championship lunch again ensuring the Spanish hospitality is second to none. Next year the championship will be held in the U.K and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.