The battle for a place in Tokyo is set to begin!

Sun 21 Jul 2019

By Bob Fromer

Utrecht, Netherlands: 22 July – Now it begins: five days that will determine which one of eight teams, the best teams from Europe and Africa, will make it to Tokyo next summer for softball’s brief return to the Olympic Games.

The World Baseball Softball Confederation’s Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier, one of three such tournaments being staged around the world this year, will be played starting tomorrow at the oddly-named Sportpark de Paperclip here in Utrecht, and the only team with a meaningful outcome will be the winner.

The eight teams trying to make it to the winner’s podium will be the top six finishers at the recent European Women’s Championship – Italy, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Spain and France -- plus the top two African teams, South Africa and Botswana.

The team that wins the Qualifier will join the already-qualified teams, Japan and the USA, in next summer’s six-country Olympic competition, along with two teams that will qualify from the Americas tournament at Softball City near Vancouver at the end of August and one team that will qualify from the Asia/Oceania Qualifier in Shanghai at the end of September.

The added poignancy that will attend all three qualifying tournaments is that this is probably a last shot at the Olympics for this generation of softball athletes, because baseball/softball will not be in the Paris Olympics in 2024, and even if the sports return to the programme in 2028 in Los Angeles, not many current players will still be active at an elite level.

The uncertain Olympic future for baseball and softball, brilliant sports played around the world but analogue sports in the digital age of youth and extreme sports such as skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, breakdancing and perhaps video games to come, is a shadow hanging over these Qualifiers that the players will do their best to ignore.

GB hopes

For the players and staff of the GB Women’s Fastpitch Team, not to mention the volunteers who run the British Softball Federation and the GB Management Committee and the staff of BaseballSoftballUK, the Qualifier will be a moment of truth, the culmination of three years of planning and hard work since the return of the sports in Tokyo was announced by the International Olympic Committee in August 2016.

Around the time the announcement was made, GB was the fifth-ranked team in Europe and was far down the world rankings after finishing winless and last at the 2014 Softball World Championship in the Netherlands. 

Since then, the team and the programme has taken significant steps forward under the direction of Head Coach Rachael Watkeys, Team Manager Simon Mortimer, Assistant Coach Liz Knight and other staff members, with improved finishes at World Championships in Canada in 2016 and Japan in 2018, European Championship bronze medals in 2017 and 2019, and another bronze medal with a much-depleted team at the European Super 6 tournament in September 2018.  GB now stands at #12 in the WBSC world rankings, its highest position since those rankings began.

But despite GB defeating the Netherlands in the bronze medal game at the Super 6 last year, no one has really cracked the European hegemony exercised by Italy and the Netherlands, two countries that between them have won every European Championship and Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier ever played, dating back to the beginnings of European softball in 1979.

While a GB Team that may be the best we have ever had played brilliantly during much of the European Women’s Championship at the beginning of July in the Czech Republic and Poland, finishing with a 9-2 record as well as the bronze medal, those two losses were to the Dutch and the Italians. 

So the requirement at this week’s Olympic Qualifier is for a supreme effort that can produce a different result.  And there is no question that GB is the best-equipped team in the tournament to do this, with the talent to make it happen.

The players and the staff have belief, and that’s a good place to start.  But the denouement will come on the field later in the week, and much will depend on the ability of GB pitcher Georgina Corrick, a second-team All-American in her second college season this year at the University of South Florida, to hold the Dutch, the Italians and the Czechs in check.

And even if Georgina can do that, a group of talented GB hitters will need to figure out a way to score runs against Dutch ace Eva Voortman, Italy's European Championship-winning Greta Cecchetti, the talented Czech pitcher Veronika Peckova and any other pitchers those countries may throw at us.

Tournament structure

All this assumes that the GB Women will be playing at the end of the week, and to do that, GB will need to ensure that they are one of the top two teams in their first-round pool.

The WBSC has divided the eight participating teams into two pools:

POOL A
Netherlands
Great Britain
Spain
South Africa

POOL B
Italy
Czech Republic
France
Botswana

The first three days of competition, 23-25 July, will feature round-robins in each pool.  GB will start with a game against Spain at 10.00 Dutch time on Tuesday 23 July, and will then play South Africa at 1.00 pm on Wednesday and the Netherlands at 7.00 pm on Thursday (all games will be an hour earlier in the UK).

All games from the tournament will be live-streamed, and details of how to watch can be found here.

The top two teams from each pool will then go forward to a so-called Super Round on 26-27 July, another round-robin but with results against the team from your group in the first-round pool brought forward. 

The team at the top of the Super Round standings after all games have been played will be going to Tokyo next summer.

The format of the tournament is unforgiving: while there are circumstances under which a team can lose a game and still win the place in Tokyo, even one loss makes this outcome unlikely.

This means that GB’s game against The Netherlands on Thursday evening will be crucial.  Going through to the Super Round carrying a loss instead of a win will make it very tough to emerge as the tournament winner.

The will to overcome

As always, the GB Women’s Team will need to overcome opponents with distinct advantages if we are to get to the Olympic promised land.

The Dutch, the Italians and Czechs, who will almost certainly be our main rivals at the Qualifier, all have far more financial support than GB, despite the Aspiration Fund grant the team received from UK Sport at the end of last year and a small grant received this year from the WBSC.  Those teams will have had far more time together and far more intensive preparation for the Europeans and now for the Qualifier.

Those teams also all have professional coaches and a far more extensive support structure than GB can access, with both UK Sport and the BOA offering only minimal help because we are not an Olympic medal sport.  Other countries take a more generous attitude to sports with a genuine chance of Olympic participation.

But for the GB Team, these facts have to be used as inspiration, to create the will to overcome, despite the obstacles and odds.

And this appears to be the attitude with which the team is approaching this crucial week.

For the team, the focus will be on the tournament, one game, one inning and one pitch at a time.

But the wider view for British softball is that if the GB Women can win the Qualifier, it will be transformational for the sport in the UK.

This isn’t about money: there will not be much more funding forthcoming from UK Sport even if we get to Tokyo.

Instead, the change will be in media attention and public profile, with GB games from Tokyo next summer on the BBC and softball joining the other women’s sports – football, cricket, netball, hockey and rugby – that have come to prominence in recent years by being seen on a world stage.

The most important gain from that will be thousands of girls seeing the sport in action and wanting to get involved, with GB Women’s Team players as heroes and role models.

Those issues will not and should not be in the players’ minds this week.  Instead, the GB Women’s Team will be giving everything they have on the field, and they deserve the full support of the British softball community.

It will be a tense and exciting week!


Photos by Jason Lee

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