Is this the year Team France breaks through and brings home its first European Baseball Championship medal since finishing third in the 1999 edition? Yes, please!
Here at Le Baseblog we’re thinking big. But we also know, alas, that there are too many moving parts right now to know, with any certainty, how Les Bleus will perform when they take the field (hopefully) come September.
Much will depend on who’ll be available to suit up for France, and on what the rosters of the opposing teams look like. All of those decisions have yet to be made.
But the biggest X-factor, of course, is the pandemic, which already put things on ice the last time France’s top baseball talents joined forces — for last year’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Tucson, Arizona.
Sadly, the health crisis is far from over. The greater Paris region and several other areas in France go back into lockdown this weekend. Italy implemented similar measures earlier in the month. And just this week, the European Baseball Confederation let it be known that, depending on how things transpire, they could end up canceling the Euro up to 45 days before its scheduled start.
Nothing, in other words, is guaranteed.
What is clear is when and where the now 16-team event is SUPPOSED to take place: in the northern Italian cities of Turin, Avigliana and Settimo Torinese, starting on or around Sept. 10.
The other thing that’s been (mostly) decided, following a pool draw that the tournament organizers streamed live earlier this month, is which teams France and the other top European squads will face in the competition’s opening round.
The 16 teams will be divided into four pools: Groups A, B, C and D.
Headlining the first group is host Italy, one of Europe’s two most dominant baseball countries together with the Netherlands. Team Italy has 10 Euro titles dating back to the 1950s, but hasn’t won the event in nearly a decade.
Joining them in Group A will be Belgium, one of only two countries besides Italy and the Netherlands to win the event, albeit way back in 1967. Rounding out the pool are Austria and the winner of a wild-card qualifier competition to take place in Utena, Lithuania. The five contenders for that fourth and final slot are Lithuania, Greece, Poland, Romania and Georgia.
Group B’s top seed is Spain, the only other country with a Euro title to its name (1955) and the runner-up in the last European Championships (2019). They’ll face Croatia and Germany in group play, along with the winner of a qualifying tournament in Belgrade, where Team Serbia will play Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia and Norway.
Our favorite team, France, will play in Group C, along with Israel, Great Britain, and whichever team emerges from a wild-card qualifier tournament in Moscow (featuring the national teams of Russia, Switzerland, Belarus, Turkey and Slovenia.
Last but not least is Group D, where the clear favorite is the reigning champion Netherlands, which has a ridiculous 23 Euro titles overall, including the past three (2014, 2016 and 2019). They’re stiffest competition is likely to come from the Czech Republic, the 16th ranked team in the world, according to the World Baseball Softball Federation.
Also competing in the pool will be Sweden and the winner of a qualifier in Bratislava, where the hosts, Team Slovakia, will take on Finland, Ireland and Hungary. The Bratislava event, along with the qualifiers in Utena, Belgrade and Moscow, will all take place simultaneously, beginning the weekend of June 30/31.
Flashes of brilliance
In the meantime, let’s get back to the question as hand: What are Team France’s chances?
The fact that they weren’t grouped with either Italy or the Netherlands is a promising sign. Still, putting themselves in medal contention won’t be easy. Israel has the 18th ranked team in the world, according to the WBSC, and will no doubt enjoy the services of more than a few American-trained players, as will the British national team, ranked 31st.
The 25th-ranked French will be coming to play, however, and have proved in past international tournaments that they shouldn’t be overlooked.
In the 2019 European Championships, Les Bleus lost to Italy, Spain, Germany and— malheureusement — Israel (by a score of 8-2). Keep in mind, though, that France also won some games in that tournament, and won big, crushing Croatia (23-zip!) and beating Belgium (12-2) and Austria (12-6) handily.
Team France also racked up three wins in the 2016 Euros, and showed flashes of brilliance in 2014 as well, beating host Germany in a nail-biter (3-2), and winning against Great Britain (9-5), Sweden (8-3) and Belgium (5-4) to boot.
Over the past decade, Les Bleus have an overall record of 13-19 in major international tournaments. There’s room for improvement, yes. But don’t count them out either. Impossible, as they say here in France, n’est pas français.