The Donosti Cup: the good (lots), the bad (not much) and the ugly (one big problem)

Pt Grey Roadrunners (U16 girls) do their signature team picture pose in San Sebastian, Spain at the Donosti Cup.

Our experience at the Donosti Cup is coloured somewhat by our trip two years earlier to the Dana Cup, one of the largest youth soccer tournaments in the world. The success of that experience (organizationally, socially, competitively) was what made our trip to San Sebastian, Spain for the Donosti Cup an easy sell to players and parents.

The Dana Cup ran with clichéd Nordic efficiency. All expectations, with the exception of the sub-prison quality food in the tournament cafeterias (we had paid for meal tickets for all the players but gave up on trying to eat the stuff by the second day) were met or exceeded when it came to pre-tournament communication and paperwork, scheduling, facilities, transportation and other general logistics and, most importantly as we were to learn at the Donosti Cup, control over the quality of local teams entered.

The Donosti Cup, in short, is a great tournament that seems to have some growing pains. The city itself, San Sebastian, is a stunner and when you come from Vancouver you’re not too easily impressed generally. I’ve travelled fairly widely though and this is one of my favourites. Spectacular. Walkable. Great, safe nightlife. Stunning beaches and geography. Famous for its cuisine (tapas), you can add in that the Basque generally have more in common with northern Europeans than, say, those in the south of Spain. There’s a calmness in resolving issues and tremendous pride in having a well-functioning city. And food and drink is cheap. I remember a round I bought (seven drinks; a mix of red wine and beer) coming in at 12 Euros.

But of course, the host city is just one aspect of going to an international soccer tournament and while San Sebastian, for me, gets a solid ‘A’, it’s really more important how the actual tournament functions. After all, not many postcards get sent from Hjorring, Denmark, host town of the Dana Cup but it’s a very highly regarded tournament.

The Good:

Pre-arrival communication and organization was excellent. We received quick, informative replies to emails regarding accommodation, transportation options, and general queries. They obviously have multi-lingual staff and we had no problem understanding what was being communicated. The website was updated regularly and bank transfers were problem free (but adding online payment by credit card would be good). Our request for morning games was accommodated as we wanted to keep afternoons free for exploring the city, going to the beach and some potential day trips out of town.

We weren’t travelling to San Sebastian as a single group. About half of us went to Barcelona (did the Nou Camp tour; fantastic) first for three nights. Others went through Paris and Bilbao. So we had to coordinate arrival in San Sebastian and get some flexibility from the bus driver for multiple pick ups from train stations and bus stations. No problem. We’d paid for 12 hours of bus availability per day (you could choose six or twelve; more on that later as it wasn’t all perfect).

We all met within a few hours of each other at the hotel and started to feel like a team again. We were travelling with fourteen players. Thirteen were from our regular team and we had one add on in the form of a girl from the neighbourhood everyone was familiar with and had come to the Dana Cup with us two years ago.

What made things more fun and easier was that all but two players had at least one parent travelling with them. With only two players travelling solo and even then they had specific parents who had agreed to have primary responsibility for them, it made life much easier for all the parents on the trips. Our total travel party was 43 I believe. I highly recommend getting parents to accompany their kids on these trips. Makes things much easier…assuming you have a good group of parents.

We’d chosen the Barcelo hotel. It was a typical European four star hotel. It would be at the low end of the four star hotels in North America and all rooms were two twin beds pushed together. So if you’re travelling as a family you’re forced to get two rooms. The hospitality industry in Europe in general, and this went beyond my experiences as it was a talking point amongst our entire party, is nothing like what it is North America. The tables are somewhat turned and either they all hate their jobs or they’ve got considerable disdain for their clients. Most requests are treated as inordinately troublesome by staff and rules for the sake of rules are common. What was nice about the Barcelo was that it had untypically sprawling grounds with a large outdoor pool and loads of space for flaking out on loungers. Also, the buffet breakfast we opted for was very good with really good variety. They had a large lounge area just off the lobby where you could get a drink and while the exterior of the building was pretty grim (stacks of very large pennies was how one parent described the design, charitably), the rooms had all been updated recently and were modern, very comfortable and had great showers.

Do I recommend the Barcelo if you’re going to the Donosti Cup? It’s at the far end of the beach away from the crowds of the old city (where all the action is) so that may appeal to you or put you off. It’s a beautiful 15 minute walk to the centre of the city along the beach promenade but there’s still quite a few stores (and the beach) less than a five minute walk from the front door. It was also one of the most expensive options for accommodation the tournament offers.

I’d say there more pluses than negatives and you got used to the stuffiness of the staff so having space, peace and quiet, a great pool area, top notch rooms and a really good breakfast each morning tipped it towards thumbs up territory.

Before we checked in at the hotel, the bus dropped Steve Fleck, team manager, and I off at the tournament headquarters for check in. It was at the Anoeta Stadium, where Real Sociedad play in La Liga and where the Opening Ceremonies would be held.

It was a very efficient check in. It took just a few minutes and the surprise was that they furnished us with a translator/guide. His name was Acier and he was a young med student from the area. That was a bonus as English is not as widely spoken in San Sebastian as it is in Madrid or Barcelona (even there, I’d hardly say it’s like other large European cities like Paris). He was a bit quiet and laid back but eventually warmed to the players. He was with us any time we were on the bus or at a game or tournament function.

Another positive was the punctuality of everything. Games all started on time. The Opening Ceremony started at 10pm at night which was a concern given we had morning games but they assured us that it would be over by 11:30pm and it was. Our bus was always on time too and when you’ve got a large group and you’re trying to get as much out of the trip as possible, you want things to run on time to minimize frustrations and allow you to do and see everything you have on your to-do list.

Also fantastic were the facilities the games were played at. We played at four different sites. All were good quality artificial turf. All had covered seating on one side of the field (3-5 rows) with mesh around the other three sides to contain the ball. All were lit and had changing rooms, covered benches, a scoreboard and a staffed concession stand (most of which had a full bar). There’s about 250 000 people in San Sebastian. I don’t know how many more of these mini stadia they have (the program shows seven more we didn’t play at) but I know we didn’t even play at the five field facility or the two fields at Anoeta. It was embarrassing comparing it with what we have here, in what is considered one of the wealthiest, most modern cities in the world.

Roadrunners at Orio Stadium, just outside of San Sebastian

Right at the top of the ‘good’ list though, as alluded to in a previous post, was the Opening Ceremonies. It was set up like an Olympic Opening Ceremony with teams mustering on the field adjacent to Anoeta and then marching into the stadium from an opening behind one of the goals, behind the sign for your country, in front of all the assembled parents, siblings and fans who were all seated in the lower tier of the stadium closest to the parading athletes. There were probably 6000-8000 spectators and with the sound system and enthusiastic announcer calling out each country when you got halfway down the running track and up onto the riser, it was several shades of awesome. All the kids went ballistic when they got up on the riser and heard their country announced. Their parents went equally ballistic and were right in front of us as they’d cadged their way to the prime seats ahead of everyone else. It was a great moment but there was more. We walked off the riser, down the track, out the stadium and then around to the other side of the stands so we were facing back towards the parents. With close to 350 teams, there were probably about 5000 players, coaches and managers. Many brought flags and banners. All were stoked and the atmosphere was fantastic with many songs being started by some teams and others, familiar with them, joining in. It was noisy and joyful and our team was a sea of happy, amazed faces. The Mexican wave roared around the stadium and the ‘ceremony’ part of the evening was well handled but smartly kept relatively short with an impressive fireworks display bringing the evening to an end.

Near the bottom of the good list, but still on it, was the officiating. Generally young refs just a year or two older than the players with the occasional adult ref, they were competent and fair. Their job was made harder though by the absence of any AR’s to call throw ins and offsides. I understand it adds considerably to the cost to have two AR’s for every game (Tournament entry fee was only 250 Euros; so if each AR was paid just 15 Euros per game, it would add 75 Euros to the cost per team…30 Euros X 5 games divided by the two teams in each game) but it asked a lot of young officials and could easily have led to some issues in some close games.

So while it’s mainly good stuff there was still the odd bad and ugly element that needs to be addressed.

Roadrunner parents hitting the tapas and beer in San Sebastian

The Bad:

In the bad column, as an international team arranging flights and hotels, the most primary piece of information you need to be able to rely on is the schedule and this was perhaps the most major issue of the tournament for us. Right up until we left the information posted on the tournament website was that the U16 girls final would be played on the Friday night. Based on that we all made arrangements, months before, to leave on the Saturday. Some by train, some by car and some by plane.

When we got there, we tweaked to the fact that the website now had both the Friday night as the date for the final and also Saturday afternoon. Acier didn’t seem able to get a solid answer from the organizers as to which was accurate so we ended up taking it on ourselves to track down the organizers and get an answer ourselves. They said it had been moved to Saturday because the division had ended up being of ‘more interest to the tournament’ than the smaller, less international, Girls Open division so they switched them so the final could be played in the stadium. We pointed out that we’d not received any communication from them about this change and they acknowledged that ‘not all the teams’ in the division had been informed. We stayed calm, they stayed calm and told us that if the final ended up having a team that could not play on the Saturday evening, they would play the game on the Friday. This ended up being the case as the Tsawwassen U15 Girls Metro team (and Coastal A Cup champions) ended up making the final and winning the tournament. Sounds like a solid solution but it meant the two finalists had to play the quarters, semis and final all on the same day. Not ideal. This is the only example I can think of where communication/planning was poor.

And now to the ugly. A one item category but another big one. In what I think is a common move, the Donosti Cup accept only international registrations up to a certain date and then they allow local teams to register. The logic in this is that you can use the local teams to fill in divisions that are too small or are perhaps sitting at an awkward number of teams, like 13, and need a few more to make a logical four group division.

I’m only going to address our division, U16 girls, as I haven’t explored the others closely enough to comment but it does seem ours was the most affected by the influx of local teams. Despite being less than half the size of the Dana Cup our division was quite a bit more international. There were three teams from the USA, ourselves and Tsawwassen from Canada (the only two Canadian teams in the tournament by the way), and one each from Brazil, Norway, Australia and Barcelona. So nine non-local teams. Quite good for a girls division as generally the boys divisions are far bigger and have reps from far more countries. The organizers then opted to allow 16 local teams into the tournament bringing the total to 25. Now beyond the fact that this meant one group, ours, had five teams and an extra round robin game, it meant that two thirds of the division was now comprised of local ‘teams’.

I use the word ‘teams’ lightly because it soon became apparent that far too many of them were not really teams but groups of girls who had been asked to participate despite almost no familiarity with the game.

As our team does not have a keeper, I was very keen to get a sense for how strong the local teams were so I set about trying to watch our first opponents warm up and had one of the parents on our team, a very experienced coach, do the same. We couldn’t tell much because they barely warmed up but we guessed from what we saw and the fact that a few of them were playing in running shoes that they weren’t very good so we put one of our less experienced keepers in goal.

We were up three nothing inside five minutes. They were awful. It was embarrassing.

The bigger problem being that the tie breaker rules favoured running up the score so not knowing the strength of the other teams we went for goals. It ended 10-0. I made a beeline for the venue manager working and asked him to please tell me that the other teams we were going to play wouldn’t be this bad. He was embarrassed too. He said no, this was the worst team he’d seen play in the tournament since he’d been involved. He also said he coached girls in San Sebastian and knew this team was full of girls who didn’t play. Several didn’t know basic rules of the game.

That was a relief but we saw that our next opponents also won their opening game by a large margin so we weren’t sure if that meant they were awesome or the tournament guy was wrong.

It was the latter and while it was nice to have a good, competitive game (we lost 1-0 to a ‘San Sebastian select team’ in a game that we carried play but rarely looked dangerous on a very hot day where we kicked off at 11am) it would prove to be our only one of the round robin portion.

When we got home after our second game and saw the results of the other games and saw that the team we beat 10-0 had handily beaten one of our two opponents the next day and that team had beaten our other opponents that day we knew we were closing in on farce territory.

Those games ended 10-0 and 11-0 and that was with us knowing the goal difference was a non-issue and concentrating on just keeping the ball and playing people in all sorts of different positions. But this isn’t what you travel to another continent for. You want to play good teams. You want to be challenged. It had become a balancing act between scoring too many goals and humiliating our opponents or keeping the ball endlessly and refusing to shoot at their goal. Our parents thought it was worse to not score and some of the players thought the same when I gave a ‘no more goals’ order. My daughter got the ball about 16 yards out with a wide open goal and tons of time. She hesitated, shot a glance towards me on the sidelines and then decided, forget it, I’m taking this one. Goal number 11. What do you do?

So we had three total blowouts and one close game in the round robin stage. Two of the three teams we blew out were good sports about it and not upset. The first team though made a mockery of it and weren’t terribly sporting after the game, spitting on their hands just before the handshake. They’re kids though and some of them were humiliated. Adults put them in that situation and an unsporting reaction to the situation is pretty understandable.

Finishing second in our group meant we missed out on playing the Brazilian team in the first knockout game. That would have been a highlight. Everyone wants to play Brazil. Instead we got Pride FC from Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The best thing that can be said was that it was a close game and not a blowout. We have up a goal in the first minute and then really controlled play the rest of the game. We equalized soon after their goal and hit posts and bars. In the second half we scored on a 35 yard free kick and then the same player hit the bar from almost the same spot five minutes later (she got the trifecta later with another free kick from in the same vicinity launched into a face in the wall).

So up 2-1 and cruising we suffered an uncharacteristic poor back pass that put one of their players through, again on a less experienced keeper, and she leveled 2-2. We then missed a pk with five minutes to go and lost the game on penalties after it finished a draw in regulation time.

And that was our tournament. Lots of tears at the end but they’d pretty much recovered by the time we got back to the hotel and we all went out and had a great night.

We plan these trips because I know how formative combining sport and travel was for me and many of my friends. We are able to do it because we have very supportive, generally affluent, parents on the team and it’s a group of players I’m very comfortable travelling with. Is it a development tool? Yes. It’s a development tool to make them better, more interesting, more informed people. It doesn’t make them better soccer players. It may make them a bit more committed to the sport and keep them playing longer but no sense in pretending this is going to push them to higher levels of play.

They meet people from different countries, they experience different cultures (and Basque country is quite different from the other parts of Spain I’ve been to) and they bond with each other as friends even more. It’s great. They’re a great group of kids I’m fortunate to be able to work with and that’s the reward for being a great group of kids: Coaches and parents are willing to go to these lengths to provide these sorts of experiences. Will we do it again? Not sure. The Visa card takes a beating doing these trips with the family in tow and while Steve Fleck was enthusiastically telling the parents we’d been invited to the Santiago Cup in six months time by a Chilean team, I’m thinking a third trip with these girls, if it happened, might take the form of going somewhere where it’s very different from what they’re used to and participating in a work project that will have a lasting benefit for an impoverished community that badly needs it to show them the world is not all four star hotels, opening ceremonies and new adidas kit.

I’ve already met with team officials from a Victoria team planning on going to the Donosti Cup next year. If anyone else who’s interested in going has questions not answered by this post they are welcome to contact me.

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13 Responses to The Donosti Cup: the good (lots), the bad (not much) and the ugly (one big problem)

  1. K says:

    I really appreciate the idea of helping an impoverished community at a tournament. I will definitely consider this with my teams in the future. Thanks for posting that note.

  2. Stuck in Bridge Traffic says:

    Great article! Lots of useful info there – we’re looking to be at a tourney in Hawaii next March and you’ve provided some insight. One correction…. the Tsawwassen U15 Girls Metro team were NOT the Coastal A Cup champions – they were runners up, losing in the final 1-0 to the Surrey FC Revolution.

  3. Colin Elmes says:

    Cultural experience aside( which is really a huge part of these types of trips I know) take a 3 hour flight down to Orange County airport and then play some of the best female youth soccer players on the planet. Visa still intact……

    • Gregor says:

      Most of what I do soccer-wise, like you Colin, falls into the professional category. My coaching with the Roadrunners doesn’t though, so what we did is entirely different than TSS going down to Pats Cup each year. Naturally your Visa is going to be intact as that’s on your business side of things while the Donosti Cup is on the personal side of things for me so it’s my mine getting used.

      Just as we’re not looking to win all our games 10-0, we’re also not looking to play the best female youth players on the planet. We’re looking to be competitive. We hoped Donosti Cup, as the Dana Cup had, would provide the right level of competition. It didn’t. But if we have to fall back more heavily on the cultural aspects when competition is found wanting, I’ll take Spain over Southern Cal any day of the week 😉

      • Colin Elmes says:

        my point was it would still be cheaper for all involved to go to California if it was a cost recovery only trip(like you just took). I would love to go to Spain( and Europe every second year) but I dont live in Point Grey 😉

      • Gregor says:

        It’s not just a PG thing (as you know). You should move to Tsawwassen, North Shore (Mtn) or Semiahmoo or Cordova Bay on the Island. They all went to Europe this summer too with girls teams and the Cordova Bay team plans on going again (to Donosti) next season. Bruno H (from Semi) takes teams every year through an impressive travel program they’ve set up.

  4. Colin Elmes says:

    Tsawwassen was significantly funded by a philanthropist. Semiahmoo is where all the Point Grey people move who like to jump across the line to Washington State to buy gas and eggs. Cordova Bay. nice place, I have golfed there. Its so difficult to keep up with these non profits Clubs these days……

    • Gregor says:

      Let me know when you’ve got a point you’d like to make. Especially one that gets beyond how all youth soccer clubs are money-laundering shams. That one’s getting tired.

  5. Colin Elmes says:

    Money laundering shams- thats it. Perfect. Thanks

  6. Andrew Cook says:

    Hi Gregor – I work for a Scottish sports tour operator and some of our teams are looking to compete in tournaments next year. I stumbled on your blog when trying to research the Donosti Cup.
    Have you been back since 2011? Would you recommend it? Was the standard more consistent in the boys competition?

    • Gregor says:

      I haven’t been back but I’d go back with a boys team for sure (and have been considering it). The standard was far more consistent and was suitable for competitive recreational teams. Elite teams, such as professional club academy teams, wouldn’t be challenged

  7. Schona says:

    We are from Vancouver and planning to go this year 2019. Can you comment on the tournament food cafeteria?

    • Gregor says:

      We went to the Dana Cup in Denmark two years before and bought the option to have meals in the cafeteria. It was inedible and we bailed on it the second day there. Because of that experience we didn’t go for a cafeteria option at the Donosti Cup. So sorry, can’t help you much there. I will say that San Sebastian is known to be a global destination for foodies, tapas, in particular and there were loads of inexpensive options to choose from.

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