After watching the semifinals of the European Championships on Saturday night, there was one thing of which I was 100% certain. The following day’s games would leave the final result of 1. Serbia 2. Italy 3. Poland. If it wasn’t so late and I didn’t have other things on my mind, I probably could have made another prediction with 100% certainty; the Italian coach would finish the tournament at the control committee table complaining*. If I had, my results would have been 2 from 2. As it is, I have to make do with 1 from 1.
I didn’t see the bronze medal match but I know enough about volleyball and life to know that there was no way in 100 million years that a team could lose a semifinal the way Russia lost yesterday and bounce back within 24 hours to win a bronze medal. In fact I only needed to go back to 2009 for the evidence of what happens to Russia after they lost an ‘unlosable’ semifinal (on that occasion they led France 13-9 in the fifth and lost).
My confidence in Serbia was based firstly on watching Ivan Miljkovic in turns lead, inspire, encourage and, in exactly the right moments, carry on his back a bunch of good to very good players to not only beat but demoralise Russia (possibly for the next five years), and secondly my knowledge that Italy is not as good as Russia. For once**, so it came to pass. I can’t say enough good things about Miljkovic. He never imposed himself on the team, but was always there to do the right thing when needed, be it a word, a smile, scoring on an impossible high ball or diving around in defence like a 17 year old. Many great players in the same situation demand every ball and force the team to live and die on whether they score enough points. Miljkovic was there when needed but made sure everyone, probably most of all the setter, stayed confident and aggressive in their own roles. It was fitting while Ivan made the big points leading up to the end of the sets, it was a sub who served aces to end both the 3rd and 4th sets. It was also somehow fitting that the Italian coach got the yellow card that gave Serbia the impetus to come back and win the fourth set.
Overall the final was a high level and certainly the best quality match I saw during the tournament. But I think it is worth mentioning the both Poland and Italy didn’t have all of their best players available. Tournaments like this one deserve to have the best players playing and for me it was a little sad not to be able to see some of those guys (Vermiglio, Fei, Zagumny, Wlazly, Winiarski) playing on the big stage.
So Serbia and Italy go to the World Cup in November for the third biggest world tournament, and the first Olympic qualification tournament.. My next prediction is that Brazil will win World Cup. You read it here first.
*As he did at World League finals.
**A few years ago I also predicted that after the retirements of their gold medal generation, Serbian volleyball would quietly fade into obscurity.