Three teams - Serbia & Montenegro, Russia and Italy - are shaping up as the main contenders for the Men's European Volleyball Championship, which runs from September 5-14 in Germany, with German coach Stelian Moculescu adding "France is a secret favourite."
World League runner's up Serbia & Montenegro will defend their title when the action starts in the German cities of Karlsruhe and Leipzig but world number two Russia and Italy, one of the most consistent teams in world Volleyball, will definitely want to have a say.
With the exception of France the other three nations all have previously won European titles. Serbia & Montenegro are the title holders while Russia has gained a dozen gold medals and Italy four.
Though Italy failed to win Olympic gold with its "golden generation" around Andrea Giani, Andrea Zorzi, Andrea Lucchetta, they won three World titles (1990, 1994, 1998) in addition to their four European gold medals and were World League champions seven times (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999). But recently the Italians have been going through a rebuilding process and have struggled to add to their gold collection.
After Olympic bronze in 2000 and European silver in 2002 and fifth place at the 2002 World Championship in Argentina, national coach Andrea Anastasi was sacked. His successor is Gian Paolo Montali, considered a "tough bone" having gained national titles with Parma, Treviso, Athens and Rome.
Title holders Serbia & Montenegro also have a new coach in Ljubomir Travica, 48. His predecessor Veselin Vukovic was sacked because he and the Federation had differing views about the preparation for the European Championship.
The regular "Balkan Blues" players are all playing abroad, in Japan, Turkey and Italy. Four of the pillars of the Yugoslav team, setter Nikola Grbic, cross attacker Ivan Miljkovic, outside attacker Goran Vujevic and middle blocker Dula Mester, are engaged in action in Italy, considered to have the best league in the world. Their super star is Ivan Miljkovic, just 23 years old, but already considered the best cross attacker in the world. In the last three years he has collected the World League Best Scorer Award, a novelty in the history of volleyball.
The success of the Russian national team belongs to the past. At the times of the former Soviet Union, the European title was a forgone conclusion. But with the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union the series came to an end. However, the Russian teams still belong in the world's elite, even after the political change, proven by the 2000 Olympic silver medal, the 2001 European bronze medal and the 2002 World Championship silver medal.
Meanwhile the French play a very attractive, if not consistent, style of Volleyball: a fast game from a very stable reception and with powerful attackers, plus emotions usually shown only by southern Europeans. All these features together gained the French a sensational bronze medal at the 2002 World Championship in Argentina.
Though France boasts a well-balanced team, there are three outstanding players: Frantz Granvorka was the best attacker at the 2002 World Championship, libero Hubert Henno was the best defender, and outside attacker Stéphane Antiga was chosen for the World Team. All three will be in Germany aiming to help France qualify for the World Cup, which is allocated to the top three placed teams at the European Championship.