As part of an ongoing if irregular series of me spending my volleyball free time by watching old volleyball matches, I watched the 1991 European Championships final between Soviet Union and Italy. It is a really interesting match for a variety of reasons. For one thing it shows the Italian ‘Generazione di Fenomeni’ early in their run of success, only a year after winning the World Championships for the first time, attempting to retain their European title. For another it shows a quite remarkable coaching matchup. For Italy, Julio Velasco had already shown himself to be a great coaching talent and was on his way to becoming one of the most influential coaches of all time. On the other side of the court was Vyacheslav Platonov, whose coaching legacy was already assured. Between 1977 and 1985 he coached the winners of one Olympics (a second was, possibly, averted by the 1984 boycott), two World Championships, two World Cups and five European Championships. The only ‘blight’ on his record was a silver medal at the 1985 World Cup, which led to the Soviets changing coaches. After a series of worse than expected results (i.e. Italy winning tournaments), Platonov was recalled for the 1991 international season leading up to this game. That alone makes the game interesting. But watching the game makes it interesting at several other levels.
Before 1984 (e.g. in 1980) volleyball was similar to how it was originally intended. All players were, more or less, required to perform all the skills. From 1984, due to the innovation of the USA team coached by Doug Beal*, volleyball became specialised and began to resemble the game we see now. In the late 1980’s / early 1990’s Velasco refined specialisation and developed the game (minus liberos) that we see now. Platonov himself at the end of his first tenure used a system that was virtually a replica of the US system.
Normally great tournaments are won by developing the existing system or taking it in a new direction based on your personnel. Judging by this clip it seems that Platonov did exactly the opposite. Nearly a decade into the development of specialisation, in which he himself had been a major protagonist, Platonov went back in (volleyball) time and came up with a non specialised system. Instead of one setter, one opposite, two receivers / position 4 attackers and two middle blockers, he used one setter, one receiver / position 4 attacker, one receiver / middle / opposite, one receiver / middle / outside and two middle blocker / opposites … or something like that, it is tough to pick it all out. In short, on top of all his other achievements, he rejected specialisation, perfected non-specialisation and (spoiler alert**) defeated the arch specialist at the same time.
Of course, such a choice is no longer possible because players no longer learn all the skills. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this match.
* My second favourite volleyball ‘what if’ after “Who would have won the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal if there hadn’t been a boycott?”, is “Would the specialist system developed by the US have been so widely replicated if they HAD NOT won the 1984 gold medal?” For the record my answers are Soviet Union and yes.
** After winning the European Championships, Platonov’s Soviet team went on to also win the 1991 World Cup. One of the favourites for the following year’s Olympics, they were derailed by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Competing as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) they did not win a medal. Which means that despite his incredible successes, Platonov was the unluckiest coach of all time. Two massive political events (an Olympic boycott and the breakup of a superpower) negatively impacted his career.
Read about the principles that Vyacheslav Platonov to this coaching feat here.