Portugal take their first steps on grass

Sean Colfer spoke to the people behind the Portuguese team, a country with a strong Ultimate culture but almost no history on grass, to see how their first experience of the World Ultimate and Guts Championships went.

The Portuguese have a strong Ultimate tradition. At the last two World Championships of Beach Ultimate they have reached the semi-finals, and they did the same at the most recent European Beach Championships. However, despite this pedigree, the trip to London is the first time they have ever played a World Ultimate and Guts Championships – or indeed any kind of Worlds on grass.

Portugal’s Ultimate scene is largely based in coastal towns – places like Lisbon and the Algarve – and so, unsurprisingly, a large part of the focus is on beach Ultimate. Grass has long lagged behind beach in popularity and player base. That, along with the fact that there are not a huge amount of players in Portugal (currently between 100-150) has meant that putting together a high level grass team has been a challenge. However, one of their most experienced players – Pedro Vargas – decided to try and enter a team this year in London.

“In Portugal there is a national league where we play mostly Mixed,” Pedro explained. “It runs from April until around October, and it’s all on beach. For quite a long time there was the same number of players but in the last couple of years it has really grown. Now that we have more players we are hoping to enter more teams at grass and beach tournaments.

A Portuguese cutter contests a disc against India. Photo by Graham Shellswell.
A Portuguese cutter contests a disc against India. Photo by Graham Shellswell.

“I think our first aim is building our player base, getting schools involved as well. We have been having a few grass tournaments but it’s quite recent. The beach Ultimate scene will dominate, I think, for about a decade until more teams start spreading around the country. At the moment all the teams are on the coast.

“We had trials where there were about 40 players involved. We cut that number down eventually to about 23, there was good competition for the male players and it was tougher to get a spot. However, because of the ratio of guys to girls that play in Portugal it was much more difficult to find women to play. We decided to play Mixed though to give the opportunity to female players to experience these worlds and gain some knowledge and experience from it.”

The team has performed very well while here and managed to reach the top 16, surpassing their goal of avoiding the bottom 10 of the tournament. Their captain, Sebastien Lacroix, has been very happy with the team’s ability to adapt and learn from different situations.

“It’s our first time on grass,” he said, “and also our first time with a squad this big, which is a big change. We are all living in the same place and having dinner together, so I think the team is really coming together.

“We have improved after every game. It depends on the opponent a bit because when games are easier you can get away with mistakes, even if they are the same ones you make a lot. When you play a stronger team then the little mistakes you can’t correct will be noticed. It’s way more stressful and way more complicated.

“We are definitely trying to improve game after game and the team is playing really well. We are trying to find everyone’s best role in the team to help the team. Team spirit-wise I think we have had a good attitude, we’ve stayed positive and we’re fighting for every single point, even when we are losing for a few points we keep fighting.

“We have a team with some players who have quite a lot of experience but also some players who started playing about a year ago. They have never played at this level. They started a year ago in Portugal where there are not many teams and for teams where there are not lots of players at training for you to get competition and improve really quickly.

“The learning curve in a way can be faster because there are smaller teams and you play more but at the same time you don’t have so many experienced players to help you. In this kind of tournament when you face amazing teams and your own team has different experience in dealing with different looks that the other teams are giving you on defence then it’s hard.”

A Portuguese player goes up for a block against India. Photo by Graham Shellswell.
A Portuguese player goes up for a block against India. Photo by Graham Shellswell.

The top players in Portugal are so used to playing each other that a new experience can greatly benefit them by diversifying the kind of teams and looks they’re exposed to. It is all going to help them for future grass tournaments and, crucially for Portugal, for future beach tournaments as well.

“At beach Worlds we will probably play in the Mixed division,” confirmed Pedro. “The goal is to reach the level we have reached before, the semis, and again and eventually to step it up. It’s going to be really hard now that the powerhouses like Canada and the USA are starting to focus on beach a bit more. Some of the top players are in every division now, Dubai was by far the most competitive beach worlds ever. That’s the goal, and we have one year to go to build up to that.

“This was a new experience for us to try and use these grass Worlds to expose players to a different environment so that they can learn some new stuff that we can integrate into beach.”

Sebastien agrees, and has already seen the positive effect it has had on some of his players.

“We have had some teammates who were crazy about the way the Philippines play because they have never seen them play. They say ‘they’re so small and they jump so high and they get huge skies against big guys’, it was really funny for me to see because they have never seen the Philippines play. In the first championships I ever played, I looked at them and I was crazy about the way they played too!

“It’s great to get Portuguese players out to see a bigger world of Ultimate. Maybe at home you think you are a good player and then you come here and you are like, hmm, I can still learn a lot.”

There may be a lot they can learn as players and as a team, but after a top 16 finish at their first ever Worlds – punctuated by a sudden death loss against a very good Polish side that will be attending next year’s World Games – they’ve shown that they know plenty already.