European Softball Federation President Andre van Overbeek is in Prague to watch the European Women´s Championships, and he has been impressed both by what he´s seen on the field and off. He sat down with us to discuss these things, as well as the general state of softball in Europe.
What are your first impressions of the tournament?
What’s happened here in Prague, organisation-wise, is tremendous. People have done so much work and it has run smoothly. So, I’m very happy with what I’ve seen.
What about the number of spectators that have come to the parks?
I was absolutely happy that there were so many people at Svoboda Park for the first day of the tournament. If I were to estimate, there were between five and seven hundred people to watch the Czechs play in the evening game. That’s more than we’ve ever had on the opening day, for sure. Of course, we always get a lot of people to the important games—the semifinals and finals—and I expect we will here too. But for the first day, it was surprising.
What would you say about the popularity of softball here in the Czech Republic?
It becomes more popular every year. I was here for the first time in 1986 with a baseball team, and I’ve been here almost every year since then, and I’ve seen the popularity grow consistently. Of course, it’s not close to the popularity of football or ice hockey, but softball is coming. That’s because Czech television has done a lot of promotional work and the teams are working in development quite hard, and of course the Czech Softball Federation supports them well.
You said you played baseball. Do you feel that baseball and softball have to work together?
Yes. In Europe, there is a culture of baseball and softball working together. You can’t compare it to the United States, where they are both so popular by themselves. Here, you have one club and one field with both baseball and softball together.
At one time, both sports were in the Olympic Games. How much did the removal hurt?
It doesn’t hurt the sport that much, but it hurts the funding a lot. In every country, when you are an Olympic sport, you get more funding. Now, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, there is a chance that we will return to the Olympics, so I hope it happens.
From this European Championship, the top teams advance to the World Championship. There are other parts of the world where softball is more popular, but do you see the gap closing?
Absolutely. Take the Netherlands, for example. They were 12th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 8th in 2010 in Venezuela and 6th in 2012 in Canada, so the top European teams are becoming more competitive with the top teams in the world. Next year, the World Championships are in the Netherlands, and I hope they can finish even higher. Getting into the top four will be difficult when you have teams like the USA, Japan, Australia, and Canada, but even some of those can be beaten by European teams, I think.
Back to this tournament . . . it must be logistically difficult to organize an event with 19 teams. Was there any consideration to reducing it to a more workable number?
We have 31 federations in Europe and 19 of them have sent teams here to Prague to compete for the highest level. Of course, they don’t all play at the same level and so we get some one-sided games. We split them into two groups in the past, but the less-experienced teams have said that they like to play together with the stronger teams. They say, ‘We like to play against better teams because every time we play them we become a little bit better.’ They know that they might get beaten badly, but they want to play against the best.
As you say, there have been some one-sided games, but we’ve also seen some very competitive games.
I’ve seen some very exciting games so far. Unfortunately, I missed the one between Russia and Germany that went to extra innings, but I heard it was fantastic. As we move past the first round and into the later games, the teams are re-grouped more equally, and we should get more competitive games.
One thing you can never plan for in softball is the weather, but so far it has cooperated.
Yes, it’s been excellent, and that’s the best way to showcase our sport. Of course, on one hand, you get the high level of competition where everybody plays to win, but on the other hand, you can sit back and watch it on a sunny day with a cold drink in your hand, and the whole family can come out and enjoy it. For me and for a lot of other people, it’s these two aspects that make it such an enjoyable game.