Not too many Europeans can boast a victory over Mo Farah on the track but Spain’s Jesus Espana has the distinction of being the only runner to beat Farah outdoors at the European Athletics Championships, pipping the Brit in a thrilling 5000m duel in Gothenburg.
Farah admittedly wasn’t quite the same force in 2006 that he was between 2010 and 2017 when he scooped countless European and global titles over 5000m and 10,000m but the Brit had nevertheless improved to 13:09.60 and was tipped to cap off his breakthrough year with gold over 5000m in Gothenburg.
It would be an exaggeration to describe Espana as a surprise victor on that day as the Spaniard had previously won medals at the European Indoor Championships and taken victories at the European Cup but as he remembers, expectations prior to Gothenburg were fairly muted. In fact, Espana was only the fourth fastest Spaniard over 5000m in 2006 with a solid but by no means spectacular season’s best of 13:16.74.
In an in-depth interview with the Spanish Athletics Federation website, Espana recalled: “The fact I didn’t go there with one of the three best marks took the pressure off me because many people hang the medal directly on you if you go with the best time and it is not easy to manage that pressure.”
What Espana might have lacked in terms of fast times on paper, he made up for in experience and race craft. One of three Spaniards to reach the final, Espana suddenly found himself in the lead with three laps remaining after Irish leader Alistair Cragg crumpled onto the in-field with an ankle injury having broken up the pack with a significant surge.
After a 59.19 lap, Farah - who hadn’t cultivated the sprint finish which made him such a formidable championship racer in the 2010s - willingly moved past Espana with one kilometre remaining to maintain the pace in a ploy to draw the sting out of the fast finishers such as Espana. The Spaniard was content to concede the lead and wait for the right moment to strike.
Farah continued to apply the pressure with 60.83 for the 11th lap which was followed by another lung-busting lap of 57.84. The rest of the finalists were beaten but this proved insufficient to blunt the finishing speed of Espana who moved menacingly onto Farah’s shoulder as they rounded the bend for the last time. Locked together with the finish line approaching, Espana - whose head bobbed from side to side in that familiar manner - drew even and then furiously sprinted past the beleaguered and grimacing Brit in the last 40 metres to capture the title in 13:44.70, winning the title by nine-hundredths from Farah.
The winning time might have been the slowest since 1971 but the last four laps were run at a ferocious pace. The three laps between 3600-4800 metres were covered in under three minutes but Espana still found pace to burn, finishing with a sparkling last 200 metres of 27.61. His last kilometre was timed at 2:26.28 and Espana covered the last four laps in under four minutes.
“I couldn't say 'I'm going to win for sure' because it's something you can't know, but I was feeling very well and I knew that I had a good chance of placing quite high; the objective was to try to win,” said Espana who also revealed one of the training sessions he carried out in the build-up to Gothenburg which confirmed his shape.
“I remember I repeated the same 1000m training session two weeks later [4x1000m with three minutes recovery], already closer to the European Championships...I finished the last two kilometres in 2:29 and 2:24. I was at my best,' he said.
As for Farah, he didn’t have to wait too long to win his first European senior title. He prevailed at the end of the season at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in San Giorgio su Legnano and he credited his silver medal-winning performance in Gothenburg for instilling him with some much needed confidence.
“Getting that silver medal in the European Championships has given me a boost and a lot more confidence. I’m a different athlete from who I was last year and the year before. Having that confidence is a big thing in my life, in athletics,” he said.
Farah got his revenge on Espana in his backyard at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, the first season in which he was highly competitive with the world’s best on the track. After winning the 10,000m title, Farah reversed the outcome from Gothenburg in the 5000m final with the Brit proving a convincing winner on this occasion - 13:31.18 to 13:33.12.