Greatest Volleyball Match Of All Time – Part Two

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What does it take to be the ‘Greatest Match Of All Time’, the GMOAT, if you will? I guess simply speaking the match needs to have high quality, great drama and a big stage.  In a previous post I suggested a couple of candidates but those are not the only ones.

When the Olympic Champion USA met World Champion Soviet Union on day two of the 1985 World Cup in Osaka it wasn’t technically a final. The peculiar format of the World Cup (single round robin without playoffs) and shortsightedness of the organisers (seriously, how could they not play this match on the last day?) saw to that.  But it was the decisive match of the tournament and hugely significant in many ways.  The Soviet team was at the tail end of the greatest golden era the sport has seen, had just dominated the European Championships (again) and was almost certainly feeling robbed of an Olympic gold medal due to the LA boycott.  The USA team, at the beginning of their own golden era, was almost certainly feeling that they deserved their gold medal and wanted to justify it by beating their main rivals.  Add in a few tired old Cold War cliches and we know that the resulting match must have been a battle.  The video that is now on You Tube (and below) shows that it was.

Some random thoughts…

  • The level of volleyball seems to have made a huge jump from just three years before (although in fairness the quality of the videos is very different) perhaps due to the structure and specialisation that the USA had introduced to world volleyball.
  • Tactically there are some obvious differences to today’s game.  The lack of service pressure and therefore greater quality of the reception (coupled with the rarity of service errors) meant that the middle players hit (relatively to the other spikers) a lot more balls than would now be common.
  • Tactically both teams were using a lot of overload situations with the reception often close to position 2 and a first and second tempo player in a small area.  That forced the opposition to either expose himself to a two against one situation in that area in order to get a double block against position 4, or to leave position 4 with a single block.  The Soviets had a lot of problem blocking in that small space.
  • The Americans had an obvious defensive plan to try to stop Savin, to make up for the very great difficulty in stopping him at the net.  They dug him a couple of times but the one Timmons got in the face probably wasn’t worth the effort.  We’ll call that a win for the Soviets.
  • History seems to remember Kiraly and Timmons as the prominent players from this USA team, but the most important guy in this match is Pat Powers.  And it isn’t close.  He is the guy who let the Americans compete.
  • The Soviets completely changed the way they played starting in the fourth set, using a lot more combinations and taking advantage of a rested (mostly because he was playing terribly at the start) Antonov.  It worked like a treat until they were 11-5 up in the fifth.
  • The Americans were relentless.  They never stopped or let up or blinked, even when they **spoiler alert**  were down 5-11 in the fifth (in sideout scoring).

This entire match is on YouTube.  It is incredible.


world cup 1985

Click for more Matches From History.

Tagged Vyacheslav Platonov, Karch Kiraly, Aleksander Savin, USA Volleyball, USSR Volleyball

A lot of the information quoted here is the from excellent Volleyball Results website, here.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.




  1. I actually thought the servers here looked a little tougher than the ones in the 1981 USA vs. Cuba match w/ Sinjin and Hov. I don’t recall any jump serving in the 1981 match – but here there is some and the floaters look a little flatter and faster. I was stunned at how easy the serves were vs. Cuba.

    I don’t know if it is quality of the video or uniforms but the Russians look a little thick in the middle. I maybe too accustomed to today’s long and lean players.


    1. “I don’t recall any jump serving in the 1981 match”. The jump serve was introduced among NTs by Brazil’s Renan Dal Zotto in the 1982 WCh, during the match Brazil vs. Czechoslovakia.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you watch from 11-6 for the Soviets in the second set, there are at least 4 egregious officiating errors that allowed the Americans to come back into the match.


  2. I never saw this match but i saw the Soviet volleyball team in the old LA Laker forum in inglewood against the US national team in 1987 (Kiray and Timmons were both there) and this was a round robin with France,Canada,Brazil,Usa and USSR. I was stunned when watching the warm up with the Soviets coming out and doing back flips,somersaults and handstands and often combining one a these with a skill…amazing ! The match was 3 hrs. with the US coming out on top. Much to my surprise i did get a autograph from Igor Runov !


  3. Stats are interesting! look at 29 blocks of USSR, but compare that to 140 digs of US that helped them win the match.
    324 attacks! compare that to games nowadays… Thanks for the work Mark!


    1. I am not sure where the 140 digs comes from. Depending on how you measure it, the actual numbers are 119/105 for USA v 91/72 for USSR. Most of that difference is accounted for in the sideout phase, ie USA keep the ball alive more to save their own sideout.
      What is more significant for me, is the point / break point phase. The USA had some advantage in digs / defensive index (my stat), but they had a really, really big advantage in attack in that phase. I would suggest that was the / a key to the game.


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