Belo Horizonte, Brazil, August 12 - The world's elite men's Volleyball teams gathered here Monday ahead of the finals of the FIVB $15 million World League 2002, some still weary from six weeks of Intercontinental Rounds and all with expectations of a tough showdown over the next days.
Netherlands, Russia, Spain and hosts Brazil in Pool E of the Final Round, while Olympic Champions Yugoslavia, France, Italy and Poland play off in Pool F here in Belo Horizonte.
Interest in the opening match is intense here, when hometown favorites Brazil meet Spain in their opening match in Recife. Spain, at No. 14, is the lowest ranked team according to the FIVB World Rankings as at July 15 2002 but Spanish coach Francisco Hervas said he is happy that his side had qualified for the finals for the first time, a sign he said that the team is improving. Raphael Pascual, the best Spanish player is not with the team. " He is a great player, but we need him in a good shape for the world championship," Rascual said.
Russia and Brazil start as favorites in their pool and Russia's assistant coach, Boris Kolcins is confident. " In the last two months, we practice every day, twice a day, so we don' t have any problems. We think we can play well and we are sure that we'll leave Brazil with a great result," he said.
The Netherlands, even with stars like Richard Schuil and Reinder Nummerdor, and Spain will be hard pressed to push past the two giants. " Our hopes are not very high for this tournament, but we are proud to be here, said Bert Goedkoop, coach of the Netherlands, who added he expected all their matches would be tough for the young team.
Brazilian color aside, it could be Pool F that is the real thriller with Italy going for their ninth League title. They face Pool winners France in their opening match but French middle blocker Dominique Daquin said he was quietly confident. "We have worked hard and we deserve to be here," he said. "I am confident we will advance."
The Poles, unbeaten in their six matches at home, come with few expectations. "Italy will be hard to beat with their great World League tradition, but for me the Yugoslavs are the favorites," said coach Waldemar Wspanialy.
Yugoslav coach Zoran Gajic is taking the opposite tack. "We are going through a tough situation. There has been a lot of traveling and a lot of the matches," he said.
The decision in this group could go down to the wire when Yugoslavia meets Italy on Thursday when their playmaker Valerio Vermiglio and Alessandro Fei face the powerful Yugoslavs like Ivan Miljkovic and teammates. Squadra Azzurri coach Andrea Anastasi, facing his personal fourth World League and with two titles to his credit, also claimed theirs was the toughest group.
What is guaranteed is action and atmosphere in this country where major tournaments have attracted as many as 26,000 spectators. The "Boys from Brazil" will find the stands packed and players like the much-adored "Giba" (Gilberto Godoy Fihlo), the 25-year-old wing spiker, will draw strength from their enthusiastic support. What remains to be seen is this it will be enough to give Brazil their third, and second consecutive World League title.
Coach Bernardo Rezende is aware that his team needs to be concentrated.
"It's good to play in our country, but it' s very dangerous. There is a lot of thing that can distract the players and I want them to think only about Volleyball," he said.