Russia got the best of world champions the USA in the women’s goalball final at the Pajulahti Games in Finland on Sunday (24 January), claiming revenge for their loss at the 2014 World Championships.
The Russians won 6-4, while the Lithuanian men defeated Sweden in the gold medal match. The competition was a ranking tournament and was the first goalball event of the Paralympic year.
Both Russia and the USA women’s teams won all their games prior to the entering the finals. The match went into extra throws after a 2-2 tie in regular time.
“We are very satisfied with the victory,” Ilkam Nabiev, Russia’s head coach, said. “This was a high-quality tournament with the best three teams in the world – USA, Russian and [reigning European champion] Turkey – represented.”
“These tournaments absolutely help us prepare,” said the USA’s Asya Miller. “All of the teams here are competitive, especially Russia and Turkey, who are some of the best in the world.”
Turkey’s women’s team took the bronze medal match with a 9-2 win against Israel.
Ukraine finished fifth, followed by Finland, the only team in the women’s competition not going to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
The Lithuanian men beat Sweden 11-3 in the final. Lithuania started the tournament strong and scored at least 10 goals in all but one of their matches.
Sweden also proved they are tough competition after finishing second in the group stage behind Lithuania. They trailed 3-6 against Germany at halftime in the semi-final, but came back, scoring five goals in the second period to claim the 8–6 victory.
European champion Turkey placed third in the men’s competition, beating Germany 8-7 in the bronze medal match.
Hosts Finland, the defending Paralympic gold medallists, were missing star players Erkii Miinala and Petri Posio. The team lost all three matches in the first day of competition and finished fifth overall.
“It isn't so important right now, which level our opponents are playing at,” said Miinala. He added that the team is focused on developing a strong defence and a disciplined offense.
“All of our 10 players [were] in Pajulahti during this weekend, so this is also a good thing for our team spirit, which has always been one of our secrets for success,” Miinala said.
“Preparation for the Paralympic Games is like long-distance running,
and we are just starting our final lap,” Miinala continued. “We have 10 hungry players in our national team, but only six will get a ticket to Rio, so there is a good competition also inside our team.”
Miller agrees that there is still a long way for teams to go until Rio.
“This tournament has been a good experience to show us what we need to work on for the upcoming season,” she said. “The results of this tournament show how close and tough competition is and will be all the way through the Rio Paralympic Games.”
The results of the Pajulahti Games, a ranking tournament for Rio 2016, are available on the tournament website. The next goalball event will be the Malmo Open which will celebrate its 40th anniversary on 12 February in Sweden.