The lesson, as always, is that you can never trust Russia to win a big match. Despite being in better form leading up to the final, despite playing an opponent missing (or changing) four players from last year’s champion team, despite leading in every statistical category, despite winning all the individual awards, despite leading 20-16 in the fourth set… the Russians still managed to lose yet another big match.
But in all seriousness, the real lesson is that the Brazil of Bernardinho is the best men’s volleyball team in history. And it is not even close. In the ten years since Bernardinho took over a historically underachieving team, Brazil has dominated in a way that no team has ever dominated and for a longer period. They have won 8/10 World Leagues, 2/2 World Championships, 2/2 World Cups, 1 gold+1 silver/2 Olympics. The commentator of the final (1984 gold medallist Paul Sunderland) quoted a statistic of 122 wins against 11 losses (92%!!) for Bernardinho in World League. And they have done it with at least 5 different starting setters, with multiple players winning MVP awards (the latest being Murilo), while remaining the smallest of the top teams and without a single dominant player for the whole period. It is the ultimate (continuing) triumph of vision, preparation and team play. It is mind bogglingly difficult to maintain such a high level for such a long time and they should be unbackable favourites to win the World Championships.
It might not have been the key point in the final, but the point that stood out to me as being the most representative, occurred at 22-20 for Brazil in the second set. The match was close but Brazil were on top, with Mikhaylov going back to serve. Coach Bagnoli put on his second opposite to block for the setter. As far as I know every team in the world in that situation organises that the starting opposite, in this case Mikhaylov, has priority to spike in transition. When Mikhaylov inevitably created an overpass with his serve, the position 4 player got three straight swings at the ball and couldn’t put any of them away. On the fourth attempt, the ball finally went in Mikhaylov’s direction… but Poltavsky got in the way, put over a free ball and Brazil needed only one opportunity. That situation would NEVER happen to Brazil. And the less said about the meltdown from 20-16 in the fourth, the better. After living through a 13-9 in the fifth meltdown in last season’s European Championships, Bagnoli clearly had different tactics should the situation arise again, but they were not enough. I don’t know what the next step is.
Of the other teams, Cuba have some wonderfully dynamic and talented young players although they still have a tendency to make big errors (a free ball overpass against Brazil, for example). They might not be ready for a medal at World Championships yet but I bet there will be 50 agents hanging around their team hotel waving euros at them with cars waiting to drive them off to embassies from where they can claim political asylum.
Serbia for the 100th time did better than everyone expected. The strength of their teamwork was fantastic and they found guys who made enough points to win enough games to get the bronze medal. They will be incredibly buoyed going back home to begin their World Championships preparation. And if Miljkovic is available (I think Grbic has already announced he won’t play), then they will be a chance to win another medal in Italy in October.
Italy, yet again, disappointed. After pushing the Russians all the way in the first match, they laid down and let Cuba roll right over them in the second. As commentator Sunderland noted, this team doesn’t fight like previous Italian teams. In fact that is the most noticeable quality of this team. They never seem to make the defensive and desperation plays that seem routine for Brazil and are commonplace even for traditionally poor defenders like Russia and Cuba. They will get a boost playing at home, but I can’t imagine a scenario where they could win.
And so World League is over for another year… but World Championships is just around the corner.
Press release with final positions and best player awards is here.
Results from the final round is here.
Results with links it individual match stats is here.