on the road with the Flying Mamaligas
Despite its recent rise in popularity the world over, Ultimate frisbee remains largely unknown in Moldova. We play with the Flying Mamaligas, a young team of Moldovans that got its start half a dozen years ago thanks to a couple of Peace Corps volunteers. Outside this little circle of friends, however, the sport appears to be a complete mystery to the local population. For example, we brought a disc to an outdoor festival last fall and were greeted with near ubiquitous looks of total bewilderment.
D traveled to two tournaments last year before it got too cold to play outdoors. Both were in Ukraine, and both times D wound up playing as a pick-up player on a Ukranian squad because there was insufficient interest in organizing a Moldovan team. Whereas there are at least a dozen well-established teams across the border, the Flying Mamaligas are the only game in Moldova, and therein lies the rub.
There are more than a hundred people who are part of the group’s FB page and distribution list, but even during the best of summer’s long, gorgeous days no more than twenty show up to play. Outside of a small core group of players, getting anyone to commit to regular practices at times feels like pulling teeth. Before arriving in Chisinau, D was excited to learn that Moldova had an Ultimate frisbee scene, but he had to temper his excitement when he saw how difficult it was to pull together a team to travel to a tournament.
Given the events unfolding in the region, returning to Ukraine is clearly off the table for the foreseeable future, so we did not hold out high hopes of playing in a frisbee tournament this year. The Flying Mamaligas, however, surprised us. At the end of April, the European Union implemented a visa liberalization regime, which now allows for visa-free travel to the EU for Moldovan citizens. Eager to put their passports to good use, our teammates did some searching and found a tournament in Bulgaria that looked within reach.
Getting a team from Chisinau to Sofia proved no small undertaking. Whereas we flew — driving with Munchkin across two international borders was out of the question — the rest of the Flying Mamaligas chartered a minibus for the 14-hour trip. It seems we were not the only ones facing hurdles in getting a team to the tournament. Originally billed as an 8-team competition, the Discs of Peace tournament wound up featuring only half as many teams. In addition to us and the host Shopski Otryad, there was the Bucharest Revolution and Paradisco from Jena, Germany.
Last year’s tournament in Lviv took place around the same dates in October, and the fields were covered in frost each morning. The temperatures hovered just above freezing when we left Moldova, but Bulgaria welcomed us with unseasonably warm weather. It was pure joy to be out playing disc under the bright sunshine in the middle of the fall.
We opened against the Germans, who greeted us with a zone defense we were ill-prepared to crack. We had not managed to organize a single full-team practice in the run-up to the tournament, and trying to teach zone offense on the fly was doomed to be a failed undertaking. We scored on a couple of hucks and salvaged a few points off turnovers, but deservedly got smoked 13-5.
Our next game was against the Bucharest Revolution, pitting the two Romanian-speaking teams against each other. We regrouped after the German beat-down and took out our frustrations on the weaker Romanian squad. We took half 7-0, practiced a clumsy zone defense of our own, and ultimately won the game 13-1.
We played Shopski Otryad last in a deceptively close game. We had a few injuries, D sat out the second half with a cramp, and the hosts — who had enough players to field two teams — clearly played half-speed. Paradisco had finished the day undefeated, meaning they would play the winless Revolution in the first semifinal. Regardless of the outcome of our match, we would face the hosts again in the other semifinal the following morning. It was 7-6 at the half and we ultimately lost 13-9.
We started the semifinal well, scoring to open the game, and then converting off a forced turnover for a 2-0 lead. Just as D was beginning to believe that we could play a disciplined game and pull off an upset against what was clearly a better team, we fell completely apart. Up 2-1, one of our players couldn’t corral a pass in the end zone, the disc going off his fingertips, and by the time we scored next Shopski had reeled off six straight points.
The final score of 13-8 makes the game seem a lot closer than it actually was. We made a lot of unforced errors, throwing the disc away, dropping easily catchable passes, not transitioning to defense after turning the disc over. These were the kind of preventable mistakes that afflict inexperienced teams and we paid the price against a more patient and better trained opponent. The silver lining was that we again beat the Revolution in an all-Romanian derby to claim third place, while Shopski avenged their earlier loss to Paradisco to make sure that the championship trophy stayed home.
All things considered, we were very happy with the way the tournament played out — and not because we technically finished on the podium. It’s hard to argue against a full weekend of competitive Ultimate in gorgeous weather, especially with a dreary winter looming back home. Hopefully, the tournament will provide some added motivation for practices so that we can field a more competitive team and go to another tournament next summer.
We have several photographers to thank for these wonderful pictures, as we were too busy playing to pick up the camera ourselves. You guys and gals know who you are.