In a few days the European Flag Football Championships 2023 will take place in Limerick, Ireland. Time for a power ranking that is hopefully not completely wrong. The groups are finally set (maybe they were already set for a while, but it was not communicated earlier) and the exact format is clear. A record field of participants (13 women's teams and 20 men's teams) will play for the European Championship titles from August 18th until August 20th for the first time since 2019. In addition, the qualification for the World Championships next year in Finland is also at stake.
In the women's event, the surprise European Champions of 2019, Spain, will try to defend their title. The triumph of the Spanish women was the first time that they could place in the top 4 in international tournaments. We will see whether it will remain a flash in the pan or whether they will field a competitive team again this year. The extended group of favorites also includes France, Italy and Great Britain, who, according to their own statements, have never entered a tournament with such high expectations. But first and foremost is the dominant nation of the last 15 years in European women's flag football: Austria.
The Austrian women's defense is pretty much unchanged from the 2022 World Games and should harmonize well. The offense is a different story. Four long-time performers will not be there this year, most notably Europe's best female quarterback of the past 10 years: Saskia Stribrny. In her place, Daniela Schelch will take over the key position in the offense for the first time at an international tournament. The rest of the offense is filled with partly established players, but also two 18-year-old rookies. The season started a bit bumpy for the newly assembled offense both in practices and at the King Bowl in Utrecht. In the meantime, according to Head Coach Walter Demel, there have been clear improvements, especially since the training camp at the beginning of July.
In my opinion, the women's competition at the European Championships is more open than it has been for a long time. Several nations have the chance to win the title. For Austria it depends on whether the new-look offense and especially Daniela Schelch can perform at their best. I think that they will be able to do it and the Austrian women’s team will once again crown themselves European Champion.
The Men's Championship boasts a surprise guest team this year: Cameroon! Cameroon? IFAF has decided to invite African teams to the tournament in Limerick to give them the opportunity to compete in preparation for the 2024 World Cup in Finland. The idea is good, the communication in the run-up was again rather mediocre. In any case, it is desirable that this is a first step for future African Continental Championships, which could perhaps be held for the first time in two years.
But now on to my men’s power ranking. The 20 teams are divided into 4 groups of 5 nations each. The top two of each group qualify for the quarterfinals.
Out in the preliminary round:
Finland, Ireland, Ukraine, Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, Belgium, Cameroon, Georgia, Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden.
No big surprises. I don't think any of the above teams will be able to decisively challenge the experienced teams.
Quarterfinal: Italy (A1) vs. Germany (D2)
The third place at the European Championships 2015 is the only presentable result of the German team in the last 10 years. Nevertheless, two facts suggest that things could go better this year. First, there was a clear upward trend during the World Games in the preliminary round matches with strong performances against the semi-finalists Mexico, Austria and Italy. Unfortunately, the momentum of the German team was stopped by covid illnesses within the team. And secondly, there has been continuity at the QB position for many years, where Benjamin Klever, a very experienced player, is firmly in charge. The opposite of this is the case with the predicted quarterfinal opponent Italy. The reigning runners-up at the 2022 World Games are paying the price for their roster construction in the last several years. At least half of the 2022 team, amongst them QB Luke Zahradka, is not available for the Italian flag football team this year due to assignments in the European League of Football (ELF). This of course raises the question whether the Austrian/Danish way with almost exclusively full-time flag football players or the Italian way with many very good tackle players is the right one. I have heard from Italian circles that the current team is the weakest in many years.
Quarterfinal: Austria (C1) vs. Great Britain (B2)
According to insiders, the two teams from Great Britain arrive with great self-confidence and the highest expectations at an international tournament so far. Reaching the quarterfinals is therefore a minimum goal. A goal that they will achieve. However, it will not be enough against the Austrian team, the difference in class between the two nations is (still) too great.
Quarterfinals: France (B1) vs. Israel (C2)
Israel seems stuck in the middle for many years. Since 2013, they have always been in the semifinals at European Championships, but only once did they reach the finals, at the "shared" 2017 European Championships (more on that later). France, on the other hand, is on the upswing. After not having a national team between 2015 and 2019 for some inexplicable reason, the trend in recent years has been positive. The sport generally experienced growth, the results were good, but still did not quite meet their own expectations. I expect an exciting quarterfinal duel.
Quarterfinal: Denmark (D1) vs. Switzerland (A2)
The Swiss are definitely on the rise, a fact I experienced first-hand at this year's Peace Bowl. In the last years they managed to establish themselves in the second-tier. Their level of play is not quite on par with the top nations, but the qualification for the quarter finals and thus a (presumed) ticket for the World Championships seems assured. That is also the goal they have set for themselves. The development of the sport is progressing rapidly among the Swiss, and they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the fight for medals in the coming years. This year the Danes are still too strong.
Semifinal: Germany vs. Austria
Austria against Germany in a European Championship semifinal. What more could you wish for? Continuity is very important for these two teams. If you compare the two rosters from the 2022 World Games with the current ones, there are hardly any changes. Especially the QB position has been in the same hands for years. The goal set by the German federation, reaching the semifinals, has been achieved in my scenario. Will the Germans manage to beat their small neighbor from Austria for the first time since 2010? Despite an exciting game, it won't quite be enough.
Semifinal: France vs. Denmark
The European Champions of 2005 and 2007 (France) against the European Champions of 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 (Denmark). The Danes have won an incredible six titles in a row. The two teams seem to be at a crossroad. Denmark has been in steep decline at the grassroots level for several years (more on that in a later blog post), and the national team also failed to replicate previous successes at the 2021 World Championships and 2022 World Games. Contrast that with France, who are finally yearning for another big success and have been able to rejoin the extended top tier in recent years. My prediction is that the experience of the Danes will prevail one last time.
3rd place game: Germany vs. France
I expect a hard-fought game with the German team winning the bronze medal like in 2015.
Final: Austria vs. Denmark
Twice before, Austria and Denmark met in the finals of the European Championships. The total score in these two games: Denmark 112, Austria 29!!! One of those games was the most lopsided loss I suffered while playing on the Austrian national team. The game will certainly be closer this year. The experience speaks for Denmark, but they start with a new quarterback. Instead of Frederik Lochte Ermler, his club mate from the Allerod Armadillos, Niklas Dyrby Johansen, will probably take over the QB1 role this time. This is not an easy situation for Niklas, who has been a permanent fixture in the national team for quite some time. Just not as a QB. Denmark against Austria is also the duel of the two European Champions of 2017. The two European Champions? Yes, in 2017 there was a dispute between EFAF and IFAF Europe as to who was allowed to host the official European Championships. As a result, there were two European Championships, one won by Denmark, the other by Austria. Apart from 2017 and the two finals appearances in 2011 and 2015, the Austrians have not been able to compete for the title at European Championships. In 2019, they even lost in the quarterfinals. The World Games, where they only narrowly failed to beat Mexico in the third-place game, gave them a boost. The Austrian team is almost identical to last year's team. The defense has become a year older, some of the most important players are already over 30, but the continuity of the entire team should be above this small deficiency. In an overall very open tournament with no clear favorites, I still see a team that is a notch above all the others.