JOE meets the European champions who can't afford to defend their title 2 years ago

JOE meets the European champions who can't afford to defend their title

Can you imagine Barcelona dropping out of the 2015/16 Champions League because they can't afford flights to Borisov for a group game?

Or how about Spain failing to defend their Euro 2008 title because the trip to Poland and Ukraine four years later was out of reach for them?

With the amount of money in football, such a scenario seems improbable. Yet for England's lacrosse players it has become a reality, so much so that they have turned to crowdfunding in a bid to defend their crown in Hungary this summer.

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The comparisons to Barcelona and Spain might seem like exaggerations, but England have been just as (if not more) dominant on the European stage of late.

They have won the last three European Championships on the trot, and in fact they have never failed to reach a final since the continental competition began in 1995.

This is despite a substantial turnover of players, brought about by the same thing which has caused this year's difficulties - a lack of Olympic funding.

Sam Patterson is one of the longest-serving squad members at the age of just 30, having featured in each of the last three championships and several World Cups, and spoke to JOE about the situation.

"Funding isn't a recipe for success, but it would be one less thing we need to worry about and means we can have better resources," Patterson explains.

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"I've been to see places like Manchester City's training facilities, and the level of resources are a world of difference to what we have.

"We do the best we can, and that means being self-motivated and self-dependent - if you don't have money and resources you need to find other ways [of doing things]."

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Much has been made of the withdrawal of Olympic funding from sports brought into the public eye during the London games four years ago, with handball and water polo among those to suffer, but the situation is already familiar to lacrosse players.

The sport did actually feature in the 1904 and 1908 games, but - until recently - few countries had an active programme. In fact, up until the early part of the 20th century the number of participating teams in the European Championships was still at single-figure level.

Things are improving in terms of numbers - this year's championships in Gödöllő, just outside Budapest, are expected to attract teams from as many as 20 countries - but England's men are still required to pay their own way despite this rapid growth.

Patterson estimates that he has forked out upwards of £20,000 of his own money during more than a decade with the England team.

A lot of this goes towards travel, but equipment costs are not cheap either, especially for a team whose makeup is very much working-class.

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More than half of the 27-man international squad are based in Manchester, where there are several top-level teams, and many work as tilers, joiners or similar when they're not representing their country. Consequently, he doesn't begrudge those who decide to move away from the sport once things like families and mortgages come into the equation.

"Most guys drop out in their late twenties because of money, jobs, family, mortgages etc so we lost some of our very best players through that," he explains.

"You tend to play in your early twenties and then turn to teaching. It's a shame they do drop out, but you can see why with the cost and time."

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With this pattern likely to repeat itself year-on-year, there is at least one bright spot, namely the growth of the sport at university level.

If the class of 2016 hit their funding target, they will break new ground in taking players to a major championships who only took up the sport during further education, and some of this has been made possible by a £300,000 lottery grant from Sport England.

More than 70 universities have a dedicated lacrosse programme, and many have at least two men's teams, as the sport looks to shed a public image which Patterson admits has been tough to shake.

"People don't know lacrosse, or maybe think it's a schoolgirl game or they've just seen American Pie and know it from that, but it's a men's game with more contact and hard hits and big plays for goal."

In short, it's the sort of sport which almost seems made for TV, at least in an Olympic year when the viewing public tends to get into more obscure sports.

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But the effort to bring the sport into the mainstream is made tougher by timings - this year's tournament will run from late July to early August, overlapping with the Rio Olympics, while the regular club season coincides with elite European football and rugby leagues.

In other sports, Europe's best team and one of the world's top five would surely not be locked in a battle just to compete, but that's the situation facing an England team who have enjoyed far more success than their compatriots elsewhere on the sporting spectrum.

Lacrosse is undoubtedly growing - the number of teams in England has risen by 30% since 2010 and now tops 300 - but without funding there will always be a struggle to retain any sort of continuity.

The European Lacrosse Championships take place in Hungary on July 28-August 6. Donate to the England Lacrosse fundraising page here.