Forty-six teams will descend on Netanya, Israel, in a couple short weeks and only won can earn the distinction of world champion. But that doesn’t mean 45 teams will go home empty.
The World Championships are an opportunity for many of the globe’s lacrosse programs to mark their growth compared to their counterparts, push their progress further and make a statement to the greater international community. For Taiwan and Slovakia, these championships provide just that.
The two countries will face one another July 13 at 9:15 p.m. in the second match of the Gold Division in what appears to be anyone’s game. Both sides bring contrasting histories into the showdown: Slovakia a relatively veteran program for the World Championships, Taiwan and newcomer, and both teams want to make a name for themselves.
For Slovakia, this will be its third appearance at a World Championships after earning FIL membership in 2004. In 2010 and 2014, the Slovaks failed to win their group and placed 17th and 26th in the tournaments, respectively. Following a disappointing 21st-place finish at the 2016 European Championships, this is the chance Slovakia has been waiting for to prove it’s worth internationally.
“I feel like we get left out of a lot of conversations about the top countries in Europe,” said Slovakian midfielder Derek Thomas. “When I’m on Twitter, I see people talking about Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic and other countries as some of the top lacrosse countries in Europe, and they leave out Slovakia. I think that puts a chip in our shoulder.”
Taiwan finds itself in a different boat. The country gained FIL membership in 2014 and will compete in its first World Championships this summer. This opportunity provides the program a chance to measure itself against countries like Slovakia, as well as tell the rest of the world it’s ready to compete on the world’s stage.
However, the biggest statement of all is simply showing up, and to Taiwan head coach Travis Gillespie, that statement extends beyond Taiwan.
“I played in the U19 World Games in 1999, and there were five or six teams there,” Gillespie explained. “To see where it’s at now, it is a global game. It’s a statement for lacrosse more than anything.”
For as exciting as making it to the World Championships is for Taiwan and lacrosse as a whole, the team is still coming to compete. Against Slovakia, Taiwan will match up against a much more experienced side, but its novelty could be an advantage.
“Every team can bring something new,” said Slovakian midfielder Martin Kramár. “It’s hard to prepare for the players you’ve never seen and the game system they’re playing. It’s hard to say what we can expect, but I expect Taiwan will go as hard as we do.”
On the flipside, though, Slovakia’s experience could play to its advantage. The squad is laden with international-tournament veterans who know how these championships work.
“You’re not going to be thinking as much, you’re just going to be more reacting,” Thomas said. “You’ve been in that environment before, especially with how this tournament is set up with not much time and a game every day. Knowing what to expect with that will help.”
The difference in experience also means a difference in goals. For Taiwan, exposing its athletes to a World Championships is an accomplishment in of itself, and while of course the team will do everything it can to win and advance as far as possible, Gillespie said it will serve as a learning experience above all else.
“A lot of the players have no idea how much better the level of lacrosse increases from country to country and player to player. It’s going to be very eye opening,” the coach said. “To have our eyes opened that much, I know it will help with our training moving forward. These guys can say the gap is quite big right now, but realistically we want to cut that down a little bit every time. We’re going to take some lumps and some beatings, but that’s part of the process.”
This is not Slovakia’s first rodeo, though, and its eyes have been open. Kramár said he hopes his tangible goal for his team is to beat its best finish of 17th from eight years ago but allowing Slovakia’s youth to learn and gain motivation for the future will be a great benefit, too. For Thomas, his sights are more direct.
“We’re there to win,” Thomas explained. “I don’t think anyone else has a different goal. At the end of the day, every time we step on the field, we want to win. That’s really it.”