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A spark in Europe's fading hopes to regain past glory

2010-04-16 08:48 BJT

Despite win in continental challenge, veteran players say they are losing ground to Asia.

Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus plays against Jun Mizutani from Japan during the 2010 Asia-Europe All Star Table Tennis Challenge in Beijing on Tuesday. The European team won 4-1 and the two sides, each featuring five stars, play again on Thursday. [China Daily]
Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus plays against Jun Mizutani from Japan during 
the 2010 Asia-Europe All Star Table Tennis Challenge in Beijing on Tuesday.
The European team won 4-1 and the two sides, each featuring five stars, 
play again on Thursday. [China Daily]

The European men's team may have easily taken the continental table tennis challenge from their undermanned Asian opponents on Tuesday, but the winning players admit that their opportunities for victories are growing slimmer by the year.

Three-time World Cup champion Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus told China Daily that in recent years, Asia has pushed far ahead of Europe in its crop of talent and level of play.

"We're happy to win the tournament but you know not all the best Asian players are here tonight," said Samsonov after Europe beat Asia 4-1 in the first round of the 2010 Asia-Europe All Star Table Tennis Challenge in Beijing.

"Chinese are always dominating. Some good South Korean and Japanese players are also on the rise. So it is very difficult for Europe at the moment," he added.

European players once dominated the sport, spearheaded by Sweden. Europe was so strong in the early 1990s that their men's teams were first, second, third, and fourth and fifth at the 1991 World Championships in Japan.

But since 1996, Asian players have swept every Olympic gold medal, with one gold to a South Korean and the rest going to Chinese players. No European player has won a title at the World Championships since 2003.

What's more, while the Asian younger generation is growing quickly, the European side is still propped up by veterans. Apart from Samsonov, who is turning 34 on Saturday, the five-person European squad in Beijing included 44-year-old Swedish Jorgen Persson and 37-year-old Austrian Werner Schlager - only Denmark's Michael Maze and Germany's Dimitrij Ovtcharov are under 30.

The only other European player in the world's top 20 rankings is German Timo Boll, a former world No 1 and who is 29.

"Only Germany now has a good team," said Persson, who helped Sweden win three straight gold medals in the men's team event at the World Championships from 1989 to 1993. "In other (European) countries, there is probably only one strong player competing for many years. Actually, there are some good younger players in Europe, but they are 16 or 17 and they don't have experience in big matches and it takes a long time."

A European renaissance, however, doesn't merely depend on the emergence of young talented but a well-built training system, said Schlager, the last European player to win a men's singles title at the Worlds in 2003.

"The current top European players were just lucky to meet some local well-educated coaches. But there are very few good coaches left in Europe now," he said. "But to have more good coaches, you have to build up a very good system for the long-term development. You have to get money, to get funded.

"Unlike in China, it is very hard to get money for table tennis in Europe because all the money goes to soccer, Formula One and tennis."

Schlager said European governments, especially in Eastern Europe, invested in the sport before 1990 but then decreased funding gradually, which made it hard to build up the young squad.

Schlager, however, is not giving up hope. He is going to open a table tennis academy in Vienna in October and has already invited some experienced coaches to teach, including former Germany's national team head coach Richard Prause, who instructed their men's team to silver at the Beijing Olympic Games.

"I'm also in talks with some Chinese coaches and we will recruit the good players from all over Europe. That may be the last chance for table tennis in Europe," he said.

Editor: Su Yu | Source: China Daily