One of Barcelona’s greatest ever players will be pulling on the famous Blaugrana colours a few more times over the coming weeks, determined to crown an already magnificent career with another European title.
Although not quite the force of old, he is still team captain and an important squad member who is sure to receive plenty of playing time between now and the end of the season.
We could be talking about Xavi Hernandez, one of the finest footballers of his generation who has run Barcelona’s midfield for the last decade and a half.
But in fact we are talking about Juan Carlos Navarro, the star turn for the club’s basketball team which is currently embroiled in a hard-fought Euroleague playoffs showdown with Greek giants Olympiacos.
Navarro, like Xavi, is now in his mid-thirties (he will turn 35 in June, making him five months younger than his footballing counterpart) and, again like Xavi, he has enjoyed a spectacular career for both club and country.
In the same way that Xavi has made more Champions League appearances than any other player, Navarro is Euroleague’s all-time appearance leader, and also holds the record for the most points scored in the competition’s history.
And between now and mid-May, plenty of attention will be paid to his attempts to add a third Euroleague title to his long list of honours, having previously triumphed with Barca in 2003 and 2010.
Basketball in Europe, make no mistake, is big business. While the NBA playoffs are underway in the United States, across the Atlantic those proceedings are only of passing interest to thousands of European fans, whose primary interest is the fate of their local teams.
That support is growing all the time, too, with the competition having enjoyed an explosion in popularity since 2000, when Euroleague split from the sport’s global governing body FIBA and reorganised independently in a similar manner to the English Premier League’s break from the Football Association in 1992.
— FCB Basket (@FCBbasket) January 23, 2015
Since then, average attendance at matches has more than doubled from 3,565 in the 2000-01 season to 8,351 in the current campaign. At the same time, television audiences have also massively expanded, with the league now working with 73 broadcasters covering 201 different countries, compared to 15 networks in 18 territories just over a decade ago.
Speaking to Sport360, Euroleague Basketball’s president and CEO Jordi Bertomeu explained he is content with the league’s success but also believes there is scope for more growth.
“We had to start from scratch,” he said, reflecting on the league’s formation. “The most difficult part was joining all the leagues and clubs to reach a consensus, abandon the old model and create a solid and long-term competition.
“The model we started was something never before seen in Europe” – Jordi Bertomeu
The current season, as is habitual, started in mid-October with 24 teams representing 12 different countries, ranging from Russia, Poland and Lithuania in the north and east to Italy, France and Spain in the south and west.
Interestingly, a glance at the names of the eight who have progressed to the play-offs, which got underway last week, reveals the strength of the multi-sport club model that is prevalent throughout much of the continent.
Barcelona are joined by their arch-rivals – in basketball just as much as football – Real Madrid, along with Olympiacos and Panathinaikos from Greece, Turkish giants Fenerbahce and Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, with the list completed by Anadolu Efes Istanbul and last season’s champions, Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv.
This model, whereby several different sporting branches operate under the same parent organisation, provides a range of benefits: financial support, a solid business infrastructure, global brand identity, a large on-tap local fanbase and, occasionally, celebrity support from superstar footballers.
Real Madrid’s home games, for example, are regularly attended by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Sergio Ramos, while Neymar, Gerard Pique and Dani Alves are keen followers of Barcelona’s basketballers and Bastian Schweinsteiger is a huge supporter of Bayern Munich’s hoops team.
In the middle weekend of May, Europe’s hordes of basketball fans will focus their attentions on Madrid, because one of the major structural differences between the NBA and Euroleague is the season’s climax being distilled into one weekend, dubbed Final Four, rather than an elongated ‘best-of’ series, with the semi-finals played on Friday evening and the championship game two days later.
Bertomeu is anticipating a successful weekend, explaining: “I expect a top quality event which will not only make Madrid the world basketball capital but also make a positive economic impact. This season our Final Four expectations are higher than ever as tickets sold out in just 24 hours.”
Although a neutral venue is selected for the Final Four a year beforehand, this year’s destination will probably end up being highly partisan because Real Madrid are on track to become one of the competing teams in their home arena, with Los Blancos currently holding a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five quarter-final series against Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
Madrid are poised to become the first team to enjoy home-court advantage in the Final Four since Panathinaikos, who won the title in Athens in 2007, and it could be a case of third time lucky for the Spanish giants after they suffered heartbreaking defeats in the last two finals – against Maccabi Electra in Milan last year and against Olympiacos in London’s O2 Arena in 2013. Los Blancos’ biggest challengers for the title are CSKA Moscow, who demonstrated their awesome capabilities by hammering Panathinaikos by 27 and 20 points in last week’s first two games of their series.
With Serbian playmaker Milos Teodosic – who caught the eye in leading his nation to last year’s World Cup Final – pulling the strings, Nando De Colo capable of scoring from anywhere and returning veteran Andrei Kirilenko in form, the Muscovites boast the best record through the season, winning 24 of their 26 games.
And the tale of Kirilenko’s career – three spells with CSKA interspersed by stints in the United States with Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets – reveals perhaps the biggest long-term challenge for European basketball: keeping top talent on the continent rather than heading to the NBA. Europe has certainly produced some spectacular players in recent years, with the likes of Kirilenko, Marc and Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Dirk Nowitzki all starting their careers in European basketball before heading west to seek further fame and fortune.
Bertomeu admits the lure of the NBA is hard for players to resist, but is determined to do so. “We have to grow and make Euroleague Basketball attractive enough that they don’t go away,” he said. “Our duty now is to keep on working for our clubs and for our fans.
“Think about how to improve our product, how to present it better to those who love the sport, and how to engage with new partners.”