By James Burnett
I wonder how many of you reading this have heard of S.P. La Fiorita.
Nobody? How about FK Spartaks Jūrmala?
Thought not. For the uninformed (and I had to look this up too), they are the respective reigning champions of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio and the Virslīga, the highest tiers of competitive football in San Marino and Latvia.
If UEFA, the governing body of European football, was run by the same people as Quidditch Europe, S.P. La Fiorita and FK Spartaks Jūrmala would presumably be competing this year in the main stages of UEFA’s foremost competition, the Champions League. This would come at the expense of clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, who qualified as third and fourth in their nations respectively. For reference, S.P. La Fiorita lost 7-0 in 2014 to the Estonian champions, who themselves have never made it through the competition’s qualifying rounds. Dortmund and Liverpool between them have won the tournament six times.
This is an article about quidditch, so I’ll stop football analogies here. My point is this: Quidditch Europe is sending the message that its major tournament is not the peak of the competitive season for its constituent members. Rather, it is a mere exhibition of the breadth and diversity of European quidditch, held at the expense of competitive integrity. In order to provide a guaranteed space for each one of its constituent members (as well as reserving an additional spot for ambiguous ‘emerging nations’), Quidditch Europe set far too low a fixed cap on qualification for the European Quidditch Cup (EQC) this season.
For a competition that has the potential to springboard from its most successful iteration so far into a period of sustained success, this is a sad direction for EQC to be taking. Its faltering legacy has been plagued by inconsistency in format, structure, policy, size, and quality of facilities year after year. Mechelen 2017 was nonetheless tantalisingly close in many respects. There was cause for real hope that Pfaffenhofen 2018, with the success of its predecessor to build upon, would be the cement for a series of stalwart events. We want EQC to evoke the same kind of tension, excitement, and most appealingly of all, parity we experienced last year. At last season’s EQC blowout victories and non-competitive fixtures were almost completely absent, and there was a feeling even before the shock defeat of two-time champions Titans Paris in the quarterfinals that the trophy was very much up for grabs. Even down to the bottom rungs of the lower bracket, games were fiercely competitive and it felt like the true realization of a Europe-wide quidditch competition: the very best teams from around the continent converged to compete at the highest level.
This year, we can expect nothing of the sort. The top eight, maybe top twelve, will be as competitive as ever, with all the major contenders still in play. It is the lower bracket that frankly promises to be laughable, on the basis of the approach taken to allocating spots. With the top lower bracket teams, in the position of OSI Vikings and Paris Frog last season, instead there are teams from Switzerland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic who will be in attendance effectively by default. The teams that are likely to miss out on attendance are the likes of Warwick Quidditch Club in the UK and Liège Leviathans Quidditch in Belgium.
Players who were part of some of the very best national teams at European Games will be missing one of the premier competitive events of the season so someone somewhere in Quidditch Europe can pat themselves on the back that a Czech team is at EQC as Titans Paris thrash them 350*-0. If there is any credible way of spinning that as a good thing, I can’t wait to hear it.
Long-term effects of this change will be felt at the top levels of the competition too. Despite a Europe-wide transfer restriction preventing players jumping ship mid-season for the purpose of playing at EQC without qualifying with their team, we have seen a trend towards one or two dominant ‘super-teams’ in every major nation, teams like Antwerp A in Belgium, Titans Paris in France, Barcelona Eagles in Catalonia, Vienna Vanguards in Austria, or the pairing of OSI Vikings and NTNUI Rumpeldunk in Norway. Recently, the UK witnessed a similar trend, with previously diverse elite talent collecting in the Werewolves of London and Velociraptors QC. Surely, the place of these super-teams in the wider quidditch context is a debate in and of itself. It is safe to say, however, that they do seem to discourage elite players from building up rival clubs and instead push them to simply join a resident powerhouse. See, for example, Bill Orridge to Velociraptors QC and Nathan Wilputte to Antwerp A. The lack of diversity this threatens to engender in European quidditch already poses an issue to players and NGBs alike as on a domestic scale talent distribution becomes more uneven. If the exciting growth of quidditch in more nations across the continent continues to be linked to an automatic and inevitable squeeze on EQC qualification, then Quidditch Europe is practically begging the best players in each nation to continue to coagulate into super-squads. Ad nauseum, we can soon expect each nation to get only one space. Blink, and the upper bracket of EQC will be simply a trial run of European Games with different kits.
Initial responses from the European Committee to criticism of the decision in Facebook threads have been that this is the existing policy, and so is what they’ve decided to go with while new options are looked at. This is disingenuous, foremost because while it does reflect a progression of last year’s approach, Quidditch Europe have something of a track record for reinventing the wheel at every stage of decision-making, meaning that for this approach to be continued was as much of an involved and debated decision as for another to be adopted. It also leaves a poor taste simply because the math was presumably done several months ago to get a sense of how the numbers would look (and if not, why not?) and there are a number of more inviting solutions that could be conceived and implemented ― or at least trialled ― within a reasonable timeframe.
The aforementioned UEFA Champions League uses a series of qualifying play-ins before the proper tournament to filter the peripheral clubs, and while this is ideal, I accept that this is logistically beyond the means of the sport at this point. A developing Swedish NGB just about managed to send a squad of seven to European Games in July 2017, and it will be impressive if they can send an appreciably larger one to Pfaffenhofen in April 2018; asking that same squad to first make a separate trip to Switzerland or the Czech Republic to play a qualifier is simply not feasible. The Quidditch Europe committee is also still rightly wary of the lessons learned at Gallipoli 2016, and their caution in not simply extending the tournament to 40 or more teams is commendable. Much like the present problem of reducing spots for competitive NGBs in order to accommodate automatic spots for emerging ones, it is the precipice of a slippery slope that is unsustainable.
I present two simple solutions that could and should have been given precedence. A second lower division of EQC, held as a separate event, would provide a more enjoyable and beneficial playing field. It would particularly benefit automatic representatives of the many nascent and competitively weaker NGBs without impacting upon the ability of the best players and teams to compete at the highest level. Alternatively, a coefficient that factored European Games performance into determining the spots would be a neat way to determine which of the borderline nations are allocated a spot and which are not, in lieu of the ability for actual teams from those nations to play qualifiers against one another. The former of these suggestions would have been preferable, but also more logistically challenging. Although in some ways it is sad to see Quidditch Europe shying away from the challenge of running a second event, they are an under-resourced and overtaxed committee, and I have some sympathy for their not doing so.
Having said that, it is clear that the hard cap on nations’ spots at EQC – conceived years ago as a very legitimate way of ensuring the UK did not simply dominate the event by sheer numbers – has played its part, as it is now serving not to provide competitive opportunities to rival nations but simply to keep high-level clubs from attending the tournament. This, coupled with the ‘emerging nations’ spot and the allocation of one spot minimum even to nations that the coefficient determines should have fewer than 0.2, represents an outdated and imbalanced system in desperate need of overhaul. A new approach may indeed be coming, but of course it will come too late to remedy the problem this year and leaves little room for optimism going forward.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly listed a transfer of a player to the Paris Titans. This has been corrected.