U16 WOMEN QUARTER-FINALS
By Mark Woods
In Beijing three summers ago, a billion eyes watched Evaristo Perez patrol the sideline, urging Spain's women towards the fulfilment of their - and his - Olympic dreams.
Under his watch, the side had already taken two medals at EuroBasket, a bronze in 2009 after silver two years before. They had lofty ambitions. In the quarter-finals, Russia proved too strong. Fifth place was no consolation. When Perez eventually stepped down, it was without the gold souvenir he so desperately wanted.
|Leticia Romero and her team-mates have the best offense and the best defense of the tournament|
However the 52-year-old coach may yet deliver a championship for the Spanish but it will be in relative obscurity. This weekend, in Sardinia, Perez will attempt to guide his country's stars of the future to the Under 16 European Championship. Unbeaten so far in the tournament with six wins out of six, to say they have impressed is to under-sell their dominance.
The tournament's top scorers - with 81.5 points per game - and its sternest defence - allowing just 36.7 points a go - they go into Friday quarter-final against Greece with the tag of favourites to stand on top of the podium come Sunday evening.
For Perez, it would surely rank among his finest accomplishments. He refuses to take the bait and ponder the possibility. "For me now, I can only think about the quarters. The gold can wait. That's what we want. But the focus is Greece," he proclaims.
"All the teams, when they arrive at this point in the quarter-finals, they're dangerous. You have to give them maximum respect on every level. Greece is a team with a lot of character and a lot of personality. But we will prepare to face them as if it were the final."
Appearances at the business end of European Championships have become a familiar joy for Spain. Already this year, they have won the U20 tournaments for both men and women, plus the U18 Men. At U16 Men, they captured silver. At U18 Women, bronze.
It is a tribute, says Perez, to the system of the Spanish Federation, and to the methods they have promoted. There are no secrets, he adds, just clarity of thought.
"It's difficult to sum up briefly but there is a structure where the coaches are supported by the Federation through the clubs, who are after all the places where the players are helped throughout the year," he outlines. "We have them for 1-2 months but clubs have a huge role. You then go out into the autonomous regions as well, where the work they do is so solid, and it all comes together."
Having players with refined skills has made his job in Italy much the easier. From the bench, he has offered quiet encouragement, often to be seen taking his players aside for a quick tutorial, positive reinforcement combined with the benefit of 27 years of experience.
"Here the job is more instruction and teaching," he confirms. "Uniquely, when you get to older levels, it's much more specific. The capacity for the coach to instruct players is much less. Here, the coach can influence with his personality as well as influencing the game. That's satisfying."
He is visibly enjoying this latest challenge. How could he not, of course, when Spain is flirting with perfection? Many were surprised when he opted to focus on the future after so long in charge of the present. They should not be. "I love basketball, at whatever level," Perez states. "To coach at this level is very satisfying because there is more basketball and less speculation than in other categories."
We can still speculate, however. If Spain survives the quarter-final, they would face either Turkey or Sweden in the semi-finals.
In the other half of the draw, Belgium has come good and will meet France for a spot in the final four.
Either Russia or Italy would await them there. In any scenario, Perez's team looks capable of meeting the challenge.
It is well-worn cliché, but he will take it one game at a time. "That's how we go," he says. "What's impressed me most about my players is that they're ready to go as soon as they get on the court. And they're enjoying themselves. That makes me hugely happy.
"Making history isn't the prize. The objective is the next game, always."