By a series of happy coincidences (as always), I was able to spend last week at the World League finals in Gdansk, Poland. It was a very interesting week. For one, I got to see some players and teams that I hadn’t seen in person and others that I hadn’t seen in the National Team context for a long time. For two, all tournaments in Poland are interesting. They just know how to stage a volleyball event. Apart from all the bits and pieces inside the stadium, they had a festival going outside. There was a giant screen for live public viewing. There was a bar tent with a very big screen if you needed that (there was no alcohol inside the stadium). There were courts (grass and sand) set up for a sponsored junior come and try competition that also included volleyball video games. There were activities for little kids. There were at least 20 stalls selling (mostly) counterfeit memorabilia. There was afood court set up. And there were thousands upon thousands of spectators. As I said, the Poles know how to throw a volleyball festival, for the whole family.
The results and awards and so on are (or at least should be) widely known by now, so it should not be a surprise (anymore) that Russia won. Despite all previous jokes about Russians choking, they were the best team and deserved to win. They controlled all the matches they played through a combination of power and intelligent play. In the decisive moments of the final they were simply tougher than Brazil. That’s not a sentence that has ever been written often before. Maxim Mikhaylov was outstanding for the whole tournament. Somehow he just seems to accumulate his points without you noticing. I spent some trying to work out how, to no real avail. He is just a really good spiker (and blocker and server) and really, really efficient. Captain Taras Khtei was a real leader throughout, and for me he could have easily won the MVP award. Brazil were a bit strange. They struggled at the beginning of the tournament. They only just beat Cuba and lost the match that didn’t count against Russia in the group. Several players (Dante, Vissotto, Marlon) seemed fairly disinterested throughout and my impression of them was that they were testy; with each other, with the coach, with the refs. World League is demanding (no pissy AFL style travel here) and others assured me that how they were playing wasn’t unusual for the early stages of a tournament, but I couldn’t help thinking while I was watching that I was seeing an ageing champion fighting for one last title. Having said that they beat a very good Argentinian team in the semis and very nearly won the whole thing. Giba was outstanding throughout. There are and have been many players who can serve, pass, attack, block and defend as well as him, but there are still few, if any, who can play like him. His best supporter was setter Bruno, who played with a fire missing from his aforementioned compatriots and had a really great tournament. He probably played better throughout than De Cecco (who won the award).
Poland had the requisite, er… luck of the hosts, and made the most of it. They beat Argentina when they had to to make the semis and then again for a medal. The very shaky setter Zydaglo held it together long enough in the big matches for the outstanding Kurek to kill enough high balls for Poland to win. Kurek is the type of player that everyone has been warning of for about 15 years (ie giant outside hitter who crushes every ball) but of whom there is still only three or four (volleyball is after all not spiking, you still need guys to pass, set, block etc). As he goes, goes Poland and last week he went well. Argentina were the revelation, both in their results and their performances. They were led by the wonderful setter De Cecco and equally talented Facundo Conte (son of Hugo). The oldest player in their starting lineup was only 24, and yet they crushed Italy and Bulgaria and only wavered in the semis against Brazil whose youngest starter was 25. They played with Brazil for a long time, but seemed to lack the killer instinct. Conte especially, seems to have dozens of tips and rolls and shots and tools that he can use to make the point and at times wanted to use them all, even if the situation called for aiming at the edge of the block and smacking it as hard as possible (eg set point for Brazil in second set of the semi final). In the bronze medal match, Poland set their defence differently and were able to dig many of his shots, or at least enough of them to win. He will get better. As will De Cecco who, frankly, is a joy to watch.
Of the others, Cuba will go home happy to have caused so many problems (and to have some more per diem money), even if they didn’t win anything. Leon in person is pretty impressive. He does seem to get bored at times though, especially with things like passing and defending. That will change eventually. He has time. USA despite being in the tougher pool, was disappointing. They had no chance to beat either Russia or Brazil and their style of play seemed labored or even staccato. In contrast to Brazil or Argentina who played with a great rhythm and flow throughout the team, it seemed like every member of US team had to consciously make every single decision during the match. There seemed to be no fluidity to their game and they have some (ie a lot of) work to do with the setters. Bulgaria played their one good match of the tournament to knock out Italy, but overall struggled. Nikolov only played one match and Kaziyski seemed tired. They have some tools so maybe after a break they can regroup and be a threat at European Champs in September. Which brings us to Italy. Italy, Italy, Italy. They almost certainly (and with reason) went home complaining about home town officiating in the decisive group match against Bulgaria (Bulgaria needed to win for Poland to have a chance to progress in the following match). But, in my opinion, that can only mask for their problems. At some time (perhaps soon) they will have to address the situation that their current system of play doesn’t seem to have the inbuilt flexibility to be successful against teams that play at a different tempo or a variety of tempos (for example they had zero chance to win against Argentina). On top of that, despite whatever refereeing discussions there were against Bulgaria, the reality was that their two most experienced players (Savani and Lasko) disappeared at the moment of truth, and that the Bulgarian block so owned setter Travica that it was often moving before the set had been made (leading not coincidentally to 21 block points in three sets). It is hard to see Italy being a threat at European Champs but watching Ivan Zaytsev play was a lot of fun.
On a more light hearted note, many of my favourite moments of the tournament were not watching the games, but the coaches. From Anastasi, who spent half his time complaining about his own players to assistant Gardini, to Bernardinho, who was so generous with his helpful tips not only to his own players, but to opposing players and coaches and officials, to Berrutto, who complained and complained and ran to the control committee table every five minutes and sledged opposing coaches, to Alekno, like a giant Russian bear (he is giant and he is Russian, the simile wrote itself) mostly stood there with his hands on his hips or folded across his chest and quietly took the action in (except when he was thanking Bernardinho for his generous advice), to Samuel, who sat there with a very un-Latin like lack of emotion every so often passing judgement on his charges.