How fast four years flies by…
How fast twelve years flies by…
We’re at that anciently significant, randomly selected (what is an ‘Olympiad’ actually, and why was the first one 1896?) time again. Olympic Games time. Or more specifically, and increasingly the only thing about it that interests me, the most important volleyball tournament in the world. The first thing to say is that I think we can expect a really good and interesting tournament. I’ve mentioned a few times that I don’t there are any teams that are outstanding in the way that Brazil has been, and Italy and USA have been at different times. While that may affect the top end quality, it makes for a deeper and less predictable tournament. But I’ll try anyway.
I have seen all the main teams live over the last twelve months and most of the others multiple times on TV and I think five teams could concievably win the gold medal. Any gold medal conversation has to begin with Brazil. While Brazil has been dominant as recently as 2010, there have been many cracks in the armour over the last twelve months both in results and performances. As I wrote a year ago, Brazil seems to be desperately hanging on for one last shot with this group. I present the recall of Ricardinho after five years in the wilderness for breaking a central covenant of their team philosophy as Exhibit A. They were very disappointing during World League Finals, especially against Cuba, and they aren’t coming into the Games with any decent form but three things stick in my mind. They have been there before, many times. When their qualification was really on the line at last years World Cup they crushed Russia. Giba is playing. I don’t think they’ll win but I won’t be surprised if they do.
USA are reigning gold medallists and they have a core who have won. On top of that, for Americans, the Olympics is the only tournament that really counts. They will be motivated and with Anderson and Stanley they have two players of the very highest level who could easily lead a team to a gold medal if they both catch fire at the same time. Still, they have mostly played poorly for the last few years and their World League result is completely misleading as they benefited greatly from Italy choosing not to try to win. I don’t think they’ll win, but I won’t be shocked if they do.
Italy is desperate to finally win the gold medal. They are so desperate they even threw World League so they could practice instead. In Italy’s favour, the team seems to be developing nicely under Berruto. Lasko has become a really consistent, quality opposite and others, particularly Savani, have also improved their consistency at the highest level. Their limit might be in the setter’s position but noone will be better prepared tactically and for that reason alone they will always have a chance to win. I don’t think they’ll win, but I will find it tremendously ironic if they do.
Poland are sitting in London right now as everyone’s favourite. In the last twelve months they have steadily and significantly improved, culminating in a relatively easy win in this year’s World League and they have by far the best current form of all the teams. Kurek is probably (if there is such a thing) the bookmakers favourite to be the tournament MVP and Anastasi has them playing very disciplined volleyball. They are strong in every position. Every position except opposite. They have decent opposites, but rely on Kurek for the important balls. I don’t think they’ll win, but everyone else does.
Which brings me to Russia. Like Italy, Russia also threw World League (41 year old Ushakov even got to play a couple of rounds while the coach and top players stayed at home). Oddly this could work in their favour by reducing the pressure on them. While people are concentrating on Poland’s chances, it is probably a good idea to recall that in 2011 Russia won both World League and World Cup with all countries playing at full strength. They still have great middles in Volkov and Muserskiy, great outsides in Khtey and Tetyukhin (coming back for his fifth Olympics) and the best opposite in the world, Mikhaylov. I think they will win.
Of the other teams, I would be surprised, but not shocked, if Serbia, Germany, or Argentina ended up on the podium. Serbia is the same team that won last years European Championships except for Miljkovic (fair enough, that’s a big ‘except’, but still). Argentina were in the top four of World League last year and still have all their starters under 25. Germany has had a great summer and their opposite, Grozer, can win sets by himself when he gets on a roll with his serve. And if we’re going there, despite all the problems they’ve had this year and the absence of Kaziyski, Bulgaria is a decent team. Actually I might be shocked if they won a medal.
As for Australia, the Olympics is a massive step up from the Asian zone but they have a great, great draw. Great Britain is certainly beatable although they would have geared their entire preparation towards this game. And I saw Argentina play last weekend. They played very badly and seemed to be feuding a little on the court. There could be a chance there. Which could mean quarters. Which could…