Luxembourg, January 4, 2004 - Two extremely important tournaments for the best Volleyball countries of Europe get underway on Monday with the European Olympic qualification tournaments starting in Leipzig, Germany for men and in Baku, Azerbaijan for women. In both events, which will be held from January 5-10, eight teams will fight for only one ticket to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Three European men's teams have already secured a spot for the Olympics after European champions Italy and 2000 Olympic champion Serbia & Montenegro finished among the three best teams at the 2003 World Cup in November, joining hosts Greece in Athens.
Russia and France are the main favorites for the coveted Olympic ticket, while Poland and hosts Germany are the outsiders. Although the Netherlands, Olympic champion in 1996, have proved not to be in a great shape in the last years, they are always dangerous. Spain, Bulgaria and Finland complete the event in Germany.
'We had a good preparation and won all four of our practice matches against the Netherlands," said Russian head coach Guennadi Chippouline. "But we all know that this qualification tournament is an extremely difficult one."
"For us it is our second chance to qualify for the Olympics," French coach Philippe Blain said. "It will be a tough tournament in Leipzig and we definitely want to win the Olympic ticket here.
"We only have a very small chance considering we will play all the matches at an extremely high level," German coach Stelian Moculescu stated. "For me, Russia and France are the favourites."
The women's European Olympic qualification tournament is shaping up to be a repeat of the European Championships of September 2003. That event turned up a surprise result with Poland claiming the title for the first time and leaving World Champions Italy and giant power Russia empty-handed.
Russia and Italy are slight favourites again but the other six participants also have a big chance to claim an Olympic berth. Poland will try to show again that they are the best team in Europe while European Championship runner's up Turkey will try to continue their excellent form of late and Germany looks to do as in 2000 and 1996 - to win the European Olympic Qualification Tournament.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, will be hoping not to miss an Olympic Games again after failing to qualify in 2000, however key player Kim Staelens is missing due to injury forcing rookie Suzanne Freriks to play in Baku as the only setter in the 12-strong team.
The competition formula for both tournaments sees the eight participants split into two pools and play in a single round robin competition from January 5-8 before the first two teams of each pool proceed to the crossed semifinals, scheduled for January 9. The winner of the final on January 10 will qualify for Athens 2004. The best non qualified European teams according to the FIVB World Ranking will get another chance to win an Olympic ticket in May 2004 during the World Qualification Tournaments.