My playing career only briefly brushed against high level volleyball. The one moment when what I called volleyball coincided with real volleyball was the 1986 World Promotional Championships in Piraeus, Greece. For one time only, FIVB decided to have a world wide qualifying event for the World Championships, that were to be held later that year in France. So they invented a tournament, called it the World Promotional Championships (for reasons that noone will own up to knowing anymore), and invited the best teams from each zone who were not already qualified to meet in Piraeus.
It was a high level event, including Italy, Cuba, Greece, Canada, Sweden and Korea among others. I have a clip from the Italian volleyball magazine, noting that I was the youngest player in the tournament. Apart from my participation, it was the first time Luca Cantagalli, Andrea Zorzi, Andrea Gardini from Italy and Joel Despaigne (the second youngest player) from Cuba appeared in a major event. In volleyball history, it turned out to have been a pretty significant event. With the arrogance that can only have originated from ignorance, I felt that this is the place I belonged, while at the same time being completely out of my depth and totally in awe of everyone and everything I encountered.
Among the many moments that I remember as if they were yesterday…
- Glen Hoag winking at me when I stepped into a lift with him and three other 2m, 100kg Canadians, at that time the largest humans I had ever encountered
- Italian players drinking wine with lunch!? in the hotel
- Stelio DeRocco owning the hotel dining room
- Silvano Prandi standing up (in those days coaches had to sit during play) to applaud a spike by Franco Bertoli
- Passing on a letter from my friend Gianba to Italian captain Bertoli, and swapping a random green and gold rugby shirt for an original CCCP training shirt
- John Barrett’s leather pants
- The Cuban players stopping the tournament bus to get off before the official hotel, at a place I later learnt was a brothel
- Drinking a beer with Bengt Gustavsson, who was also smoking a cigarette, both things that at the time I didn’t think professionals did
- Lars Nilsson spiking a pipe that I’m sure was less than 1m from the net
- Cuban legends Raul Vilches, the most dignified man I had ever seen, and Carlos Ruiz, who had a myriad of stutter steps and approaches to get past the block
- The Italian bench laughing at Joel Despaigne during the final for whistling as he jumped and spiked (and inevitably scored). That he beat them easily did nothing to stop their laughter
- Ricardo Goicoechea, the Cuban player who I am convinced was a much better player than any of the others, but for reasons I do not know only played a couple more years in the national team
- The entire bronze medal match between Greece and Canada, with the winner gaining the last World Championships place. The stadium was absolutely full of 18,000 spectators, all of whom wanted Greece to win, and all of whom whistled every single time Canadian Paul Gratton went back to serve
- The Korean referee overruling the obviously cheating Greek linesmen four times on match point.
The most amazing thing is that it turned out I did belong there, although not in the way I thought I did at the time, and that some of the principals are now friends, acquaintances and colleagues.
Today, I found a very good quality YouTube video of that bronze medal match, complete with full stadium, the crowd whistling Gratton and one of the match point overrules. It brings back some pretty cool memories.
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