Lausanne, Switzerland, May 14, 2003 - The International Volleyball Federation's premiere annual men's $15 million World League, kicks off this weekend with two exciting matches from Pool D, which, for logistical reasons, is starting one week ahead of the other three pools. World Championship bronze medallists France clash with World League rookies the Czech Republic, and Greece, who are busily shaping their team ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics, host Japan.
Ahead of the full blown Intercontinental Round action starting one week later, the question most regularly asked is whether Russia can retain the title in what is becoming a battle of attrition between the sport's traditional powerhouses who are now challenged by the young, the cheeky and the very talented new lineups that are reshuffling the cards in international competition.
To Russia, add World Champions Brazil, Olympic champions Serbia and Montenegro, Italy, the best-ever World League performer, the creative French, emerging Portugal and Poland, hosts of the finals Spain, ambitious Greece and seven other top teams and the stage is set for big time volleyball action.
The remaining three Pools start on May 23 with defending champions Russia, fielding stars such as Pavel Abramov, Alexei Koulechov and Vadim Khamouttskikh, Spain, Venezuela and Poland spicing up the action in Pool A.
Pool B pits World Champions Brazil against Italy, who is sparking under their new coach in Gian Paolo Montali and determined to recover their dominance. Portugal and Germany also have the potential to cause an upset in what will be one of the most interesting pools of this year's intercontinental round.
Serbia and Montenegro, third last year, are strong favorites in Pool C while Bulgaria, a young Cuban lineup and the Netherlands should provide a fascinating contest for the remaining qualifying spot.
And Pool D should see the creative yet unpredictable French, who just squeezed through European Championship qualifying last weekend, top the table, with Japan, the Czech Republic and Greece fighting it out for the remaining qualifying spot for the finals in Madrid.
This year's World League is the perfect chance for the top teams to check out the opposition ahead of a string of continental championships and the World Cup in Japan, where the top three place getters qualify automatically for the Olympic tournament in Athens next year.
Pool A: Russia, Poland, Spain, Venezuela
Pool B: Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Germany
Pool C: Serbia and Montenegro, Netherlands, Cuba, Bulgaria
Pool D: France, Czech Republic, Greece, Japan.