Whatever the absence of a post might imply, the recent World Cup did not escape my attention. I followed it just as intently as every other volleyball event and was able to catch bits of a lot of matches, via various unknown friends who (illegally) share video streams. For the record, I thank those unnamed heroes. But I digress…
The record shows that Russia won, with Poland taking silver and Brazil bronze. More importantly, those three teams took the first qualfication places for next year’s Olympic Games and have the advantage of being able to plan in peace while the other countries still have at least one more step in the qualfication process. As a tournament, there were many discussion points. The first was the tournament itself. There is no tournament in the volleyball world (or perhaps the entire sporting world) that asks as much of its participants. 11 matches in 15 days, with travel on the off days, is very tough. Many people spoke about it including Miljkovic and Giba returned to his club suffering from injury. That is added to the fact that those players came directly from the clubs and returned to them straight afterwards. I doubt that it will change in 2015, but voices are getting louder and more persistent about the load on the top players.
There were of course a couple of minor scandals, or at least whiffs of impropriety, oddly both involving Brazil. Argentina’s best chance of qualifying for the Olympics was for Brazil to qualify at World Cup, giving Argentina an easier chance of getting through the South American qualifier. When the teams played each, Argentina rested a couple of starters and Brazil won 3-0. On the second last day Poland played against Brazil, with both teams still fighting for an Olympic spot with Italy. Mathematicians predicted a 3-2 victory for would clinch qualification for Poland and ensure that a 3-0 victory over Japan on the last day would also clinch qualification for Brazil by one set against Italy. Incredibly, after Poland rushed out to a 2-0 lead, Brazil was able to fight back to win in five sets. The next day Brazil won 3-0 against Japan and with it the bronze medal in the World Cup and Olympic Qualification. The lessson, as always, it doesn’t matter what the format of the tournament, and how organisers legislate them, each coach has a different goal and there are many ways of achieving those goals.
Other things that we learnt…
– Russia has the best team in the world. Day in, day out, Russia has the most talent and the most depth of any volleyball nation. That doesn’t mean that they will win a single match on a single day when it counts for the most (see European Championships 2011… and 2009… and 2007… etc) but they have definitely have the talent to beat anyone. This tournament is the perfect format for Russia, i.e. no knockout games, and they were able to win easily even without their starting setter, Grankin.
– Brazil is old. And as I thought when I watched them at World League Finals, they are just barely hanging on for a last shot at the Olympics. In fact the word I used at the time was ‘testy’. This video (at around the 1:00 mark) would seem to confirm that observation.
The ‘last man standing’ format of the World Cup was the worst possible format for this team, which showed in losses to Italy (for the first time since June 2003) and Cuba. On the other hand, in the one game (if you don’t count the Poland match) that they absolutely had to win, after a rest day, they crushed Russia 3-0. At the Olympics there are many games they would absolutely have to win that fall after a rest day. It seems that neither Marlon nor Bruno are able to establish themselves as first setter and Giba is still, at the age of 35 the most important player in the team. As wonderful as Giba has been, and mostly still is, that can’t bode particularly well for a team which wants to win the gold medal. On the other hand, the Olympics are a physically much easier tournament and, as we will see, noone else is really great shape either.
– Poland is pretty good. Despite having a big hole at the opposite position (Bartman is a receiver who is not good enough to make the team at that position), Poland got better and better as the tournament went on. The pairing of Winiarski and Kurek as outside hitters, might currently be the best combination in the world. Zagumny is still one of the best setters in the world and Ignaczak is a libero of the highest level. As it stands, they must think they have a chance to win a medal next year, and if they can get Wlazly to come back to the National Team, not an easy task, they would have to think about a gold.
– Italy are making some steps. Despite starting three players whose famous fathers aren’t Italian (I don’t understand why this isn’t a bigger story), they seem to be gelling under new coach Berrutto. Christian Savani seems to finally be developing into the player his talent always suggested he should be. Their middles are always strong and they will always have the best tactics. If they can get through the qualification process, by no means a done deal, they should improve and have a chance in London.
As an aside, I don’t always think Berrutto is a paragon of sportsmanship, but in this instance he was perfectly within his rights, and for the record I would have done, and have done, exactly the same thing.
– USA has no chance of a medal. Actually they have one chance. Lloy Ball. After three years of the post LB era, they still haven’t worked out who is his successor. In this tournament they swapped setters around again, and they never seemed to find much rhythm, despite the emergence of passer hitter Matt Anderson as a potential world class player and a good tournament from Clay Stanley. It’s really, really hard to see how they can improve enough to be a real threat in London. Their saving grace may well be that none of the other ‘favourites’ are without their weaknesses, so getting hot at the right time could make a bigger than normal difference. That’s not really what you want to have as a plan though.
– Cuba is young and impressive. They certainly have some outrageous talent and they can challenge anyone on any day even if their most sophisticated tactic is ‘jump higher’. But they are very young, have ongoing problems with defections / threats of defections / conspiracies to defect and who knows what kind of team they will have come Olympic time. It is not beyond the realms of possibility (I imagine) that the ‘wall’ will finally come down and they will welcome back all the players who have previously defected. That would be something… As it is, no one will want to play against them, least of all USA in the NORCECA qualifier.
– Serbia had a nice trip to Japan.
– Iran can play and must be clear favourites for qualify from Asia.
My prediction for the Olympics? As long as Bernardinho is breathing AND Giba is 100% fit, noone has proved they can beat Brazil. That is not to say they won’t, but picking against Brazil this far out from the Olympics would be silly. Russia is always favourite for bronze. They are good enough to win most games easily and flighty enough to lose one they shouldn’t, most likely the semifinal. That leaves Poland to take the silver. The match I’m most looking forward to seeing is the Poland – Italy semfinal, especially the little side story of Anastasi, an Italian, ex- Italian National Team coach who was replaced in that job, not by choice, by current Italian National Team coach, Berrutto. Nothing beats a bit of niggle in a big match.