In a race brimming with current and former champions as well as the three individual medallists from Tilburg, the individual gold medal in the senior men’s race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships went to the athlete who only finished 40th last year.
But that is not to say that Sweden’s Robel Fsiha was a completely unexpected champion. While Fsiha wasn’t a factor in last year’s race, the 23-year-old was the top European finisher at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark where he finished 17th at the start of the season.
Even so, Fsiha didn’t feature too extensively in the pre-event discussion which focused on the prospects of defending champion and late entrant Filip Ingebrigtsen from Norway’s, past winners Aras Kaya and Ali Kaya from Turkey and Switzerland’s Julien Wanders who was making his debut in the senior race at the European Cross Country Championships.
Fsiha was aware of the calibre of the field on the start-line at the Bela Vista Park but the Eritrean-born athlete was still confident enough in his abilities to believe he could outrun the favoured entrants over a technically challenging 10225 metre course.
“It was a really good field here and I was expecting it so I prepared myself by training really hard,” said Fsiha. “My focus was to take gold - that's why I've been training at altitude prior to coming here. I knew the other athletes would try to follow me, but I've been working hard on my hill workout, so I'm pleased with the result.”
The course was certainly one of the hilliest and rhythm-sapping in the recent history of the European Cross Country Championships but this suited the eventual winner who performed very well in Aarhus on a course which many seasoned observers opined was the toughest in World Cross Country Championships history.
As expected, Wanders took the race out hard from the gun and led for the majority of the two short laps of 500 metres and the first of six long laps of 1500 metres. The pace from the outset put paid to the prospects of reigning champion Ingebrigtsen who glided across the mud in Tilburg twelve months ago but eventually finished 12th in Lisbon, some 58 seconds behind the winner.
And there was little respite at the front as Aras Kaya, the individual winner in 2016, assumed the pacemaking duties from Wanders. After a 4:23 and then a 4:29 lap, Kaya kept up the pressure with laps of 4:26 and then a 4:24 lap which succeeded in whittling the leading group down to three with only Fsiha and two-time U20 champion Yemaneberhan Crippa from Italy in Kaya’s slipstream.
Racing for the first time since the World Athletics Championships, Crippa began to drift out of contention on the penultimate lap as Kaya continued to forge ahead from Fsiha. The Swede kept glancing around - perhaps to check the distance between himself and the bronze medallist - but Fsiha clearly had aspirations on the gold medal, breaking away from the long-time leader on the first uphill climb on the final circuit.
Fsiha was just as adept on the downhill as he did on the uphill and the leader powered home from a rubber-legged Kaya on the approach to the finish, opening up a commanding gap of eleven seconds to secure what was only Sweden’s second gold medal in the history of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
Fsiha covered the 10225m course in a fraction inside 30 minutes - he stopped the clock at 29:59 - with Kaya further embellishing his medal tally with silver in 30:10 to accompany his gold medal from 2016 and his bronze medal from 2018.
And making his eighth successive appearance at the European Cross Country Championships, Crippa also added to his medal tally. He followed up his two gold medals at U20 level and two bronze medals at U23 level with his first senior medal at the European Cross Country Championships.
“This course is like a mountain!” exclaimed Crippa. “But I am used to it and I really like it when it is a hard loop.”
Wanders rallied on the last lap, passing Great Britain’s Andrew Butchart to finish fourth in 30:25. Two years after winning individual bronze, Butchart had to settle for fifth individually but he still led the Brits to their third team title in championship history after prior successes in 1999 and 2016.
Butchart was part of that gold medal-winning team in 2016 as was Ben Connor who finished ninth today in 30:47 with Kris Jones completing their triumvirate in 22nd.
The Brits only won the team title by two points from Belgium who were led by Soufiane Bouchikhi and Isaac Kimeli in seventh and eighth individually with Spain winning team bronze despite their star runner Ouassim Oumaiz, 20, dropping out due to injury. Their leading counter was Antonio Abadia in eleventh in 30:57.