The Greatest (Unseen) Match In History

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At the beginning of 1984 the Soviet Union was the great men’s volleyball team in history. In the previous seven years they had won every tournament they had played, including two World Championships and an Olympic Games.  The United States were a fast rising team, with no history of success but increasingly good results in various friendly matches and unofficial tournaments.  The Los Angeles Olympics were shaping as a showdown between these two teams.

With that background, USA travelled to the Soviet Union in May 1984 for the last friendly meetings between them before the Olympics.  At stake was nothing more than self confidence and perhaps favouritism for the games themselves.  They were to play four matches in Kharkov in what is now Ukraine.  The video for the first match has surfaced online.  It is an amazing document, not least because it seems to be an actual USA scouting video, with commentary from a member of the coaching staff.  How it came to be posted by a Russian will likely remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Doug Beal wrote in his book ‘Spike!’ that the boycott was announced shortly after this match, although he suspected that the coaching staff were informed between the fourth and fifth sets.  The remaining matches in the series were 3-0 victories for the Americans, as the Russians disappointment overcame their professionalism and personal motivation.  The first match remains as the only evidence at what might have happened in Los Angeles.  I watched the match (the video only shows up to 6-2 USA in the fifth set.  I have some thoughts.

IT WAS A FRIENDLY MATCH

It was a different time and at that time friendly matches and tours were a much bigger feature of the volleyball calendar and treated with more importance than now.  But even then there are a few things that make me think both teams were foxing at least to a degree.  The commentator mentions quite a few occasions that the level is not high and neither team is fully focussed.

The Russians lost eight points in a row to start the second set without taking a timeout or making a substitution.  I can’t help but feel Platonov would have acted differently with an actual medal at stake.  The Soviets also used three different setters.  The USA on the other hand played virtually a whole set without Karch Kiraly and Pat Powers.  Again I can’t imagine that would have been the case with more at stake, even though Karch did seem to be a bit distracted at times, especially in reception.  Craig Buck also spent long periods on the bench, although he seemed to be carrying a fairly significant ankle injury that was still an issue at the Olympics.

THE MATCH

The match was quite similar to the World Cup match in 1985.  The USSR controlled the match for long periods and seemed like the better team but were never able to ‘break’ the USA team.  Indeed in both matches it was the USSR who showed less composure when playing with the lead.  In the fourth set here they led 7-2 and 11-8 and really should have won the match 3-1, not least because Karch was on the bench and Buck was literally landing on one after attacking.  If you are a real volleyball nerd, I mean even more than me because I have looked at it.  Here is the play by play.  It was also interesting to hear the crowd very loudly whistle their team on several occasions.  Despite being the best team in the world, it seemed as though the fans did not have a lot of patience at all.

TECHNICAL AND TACTICAL NOTES

Serve and Reception The less said here the better.  Blocking the serve has some impact but for the most part serving is poor.  Service aces are almost all straight shanks by the receiver.  It wasn’t even always clear that there was a tactical plan for serving other than hitting a specific player. The only interesting thing was no jump serves, but Zaitsev using a standing topspin ‘drive’ serve.

Reception Attack The Americans seemed to be approaching the setter diagonally which let them ‘fly’ past the commit blockers and confuse the secondary ‘switch’ blocker. They were very effective from good reception.  Timmons in particular was devastating in attack and it was noticeable that the period in which USSR build a big lead in the fourth set coincided with Timmons not being involved in the attack (and incidentally Savin being set on every single opportunity).  Alternatively, they sought out Zaitsev who changed positions constantly even blocking middle at times (successfully).  With Sunderland in Powers’ place, they altered their two man reception to include him in some rotations.
The Soviet Union used their famous long 7 (B quick) to both middles.  The Soviets used the backrow attack from position 1 sparingly, the Americans a lot more. Interestingly Timmons was almost always allowed to spike without a block.  The tactic was obviously to allow him to make errors or defend him.  This tactic worked well for three sets, less well (ie not at all) after that.  It is hard to imagine they would not have changed tactics in a more important match.

Block, Defence, Transition Attack Apart from switch blocking the most obvious note was how the blockers changed positions a lot.  Nominal middles for both teams were very often blocking outside, either due to switching or matchups.  The quality of the first contact tended to be variable and the second contact was imprecise high ball set to a player who had not fully transitioned which I also commented on at the Olympics.  If that player was also a middle blocker with poorly developed skills in that area, with the obvious exception of Timmons, then the outcome was extremely poor transition attacking which was at times quite infuriating for someone accustomed to the speed and precision of the current transition offence.  The USSR had also not spent a lot of emphasis on block cover.

BEST PLAYERS

The best players in this match, by the famous country mile, are Savin and Timmons.  Despite being middles they are the main attackers and scorers from their teams.  Savin ends up 24/36 (67%) from first tempo, while Timmons has 19/24 (79%) from first tempo and 13/22 (59%) from position 1.  Highlights from Savin’s attack are here.  I will write about Timmons soon.

THE COMMENTATOR

The commentator is the true gift of this video.  For one thing, it would be virtually impossible to identify the players without his help from this very old grainy VHS converted video.  One has to note however that he was remarkably poor at identifying some things given he was in the stadium watching it live at the time.  The second thing is the ‘special’ comments which he saves for only the biggest stars.  Doubtless they were intended for an audience limited to just a few, but given that it was 36 years ago I don’t feel too bad sharing them.  There are a few gems about Savin, such as “Savin floats across about 8′ above the net.” plus a few others.  Powers also gets a couple…

  • “Pat is playing down to the level.  Everyone is kind of lazy out there.  Pats gets lazier.”
  • “…almost castrated Pat.  He’s counting he still has two.” After a defensive action, 13:35 if you want to see it.

He also may or may not have said a spiker ‘p***ied’ it into the block on one occasion.

AFTERMATH

The aftermath is that the teams played at least three more times in the following 18 months: at the Japan Cup in 1984, a friendly match in 1985 and the World Cup in 1985.  All matches were five sets.  USA won three of them.  The USA are convinced they would have won in Los Angeles.  Interestingly, I have corresponded with Russians who say the same thing.  It is a giant ‘What if?’ and I do feel like I have been robbed by not knowing for sure.

Here is the Data Volley Match Report for the match up to 6-2 in the fifth.  There are a few points missing here and there. But I think it is likely a fair representation.

Here is the video.

Click for more Matches From History.

Tagged Doug Beal, Karch Kiraly, USA Volleyball, 1984 Olympic Volleyball, Vyacheslav Platonov, Steve Timmons, Aleksander Savin, Pat PowersVyacheslav Zaitsev, USSR Volleyball

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