Lausanne, Switzerland, Sept 16, 2003 - Places are rapidly filling for the 12 elite teams that will contest the 2003 FIVB Men's World Cup in Japan (Nov. 16- 30) and nothing could send a stronger signal about the quality of this, the first Olympic qualifier, than the first class clash between Italy and France for the European title last Sunday.
These two men's teams fought a gladiatorial battle in front of a sellout stadium in Berlin and as European champion and vice-champion, both advance to the World Cup lineup, a tournament that will send the top three teams straight into the Athens 2004 Olympic tournament.
For Italy, it was a triumphant march back into the international spotlight that they dominated during the 1990s, as well as a signal that the team has been rejuvenated under new national coach Gian Paolo Montali and is ready to take on all challenges.
France, under Philippe Blain, took the bronze medal at last year's World Championship and had concentrated much of their efforts this season on preparing for the European Championship. They met Italy as equals in the final as the second set, which they won 42-20 to draw back to one set all, clearly showed. What perhaps made the difference for "Blain's Boys" was that they had fought a five set marathon in their semifinal match against Serbia and Montenegro, one of the toughest teams in international Volleyball, while Italy had romped past Russia in straight sets in their clash. France fought a courageous battle and were driven on by sheer adrenalin, but they failed to make some crucial points in the closing stages and let Italy run out euphoric and deserving winners.
Italy and France join African champion Tunisia, Korea and China - the Asian Champion and vice-Champion, World and South American champions Brazil and South American vice-Champion Venezuela and hosts Japan. Just four berths are still to be decided - champion and vice-champion of Norceca, and two wild card entries to be decided jointly by FIVB and tournament hosts Japan.
With the Norceca championship concluding on Sept. 30 and the official Drawing of Lots to be held in Tokyo on Oct. 3, wildcards will be allocated and announced on Oct. 1-2. Meanwhile the stage is set for a fantastic World Cup in Japan in a tournament that brings elite Volleyball to 12 Japanese cities - from Sapporo in the north to Kagoshima in the south.
The women's event (Nov. 1-15) will be just as challenging and carries the same valuable prize - three qualification spots in the 2004 Olympic tournament.
Three Continental championships - Asia, Europe and Norceca - are due to be completed at the end of September. Egypt, the African Continental champions, and Brazil and Argentina, first and second at the South American Continental Championship and hosts Japan already confirmed.