FIVB World League: the grand finale to a spectacular, record-breaking edition
In defending champions and Olympic gold medalists Russia, record winners Brazil, hosts Italy and the USA, the top four in the world rankings will all have their sights set on victory on the 25th anniversary of the competition. They are joined in the Finals, to be held at the Nelson Mandela Forum from Wednesday to Sunday, by the tournament’s surprise packages Iran and Australia, who won last weekend’s Group 2 Finals to secure the final ticket.
A record 28 teams took part in this year’s FIVB World League, and the final ten of the total of 154 matches now form the absolute highlight of the competition. "The new format of the World League is fantastic – many matches were sold out. With the exception of Iran, all the other teams had to wait until the final match to secure their tickets to the finals. Everyone should be prepared for a Finals full of excitement and spectacular matches," said Mauro Berruto, coach of the hosts. Italy will stage the grand finale for the first time for ten years.
Thursday’s highlight is the preliminary round clash of the titans, with Russia facing Brazil at 17.30 local time. Together with Iran, the two volleyball powers form one of two groups of three. The other pool consists of Italy, the USA and Australia. The top two teams in each group will meet in the semifinals, with many experts predicting that the top four in the world rankings will go head to head for a place in the final. The favourites on paper are Russia: the team, which includes 2.18m-tall Dmitry Muserskiy, won gold at the 2012 Olympics and also claimed the title in last year’s FIVB World League – with a dominant 3-0 victory over Brazil in the final.
Andrey Voronkov, the coach of three-time World League winners Russia, however, is keen to play down the role of favourites, instead pointing to the strengths of their arch rivals. "Every team could be dangerous in Florence. However, Brazil come into the tournament with the wind in their sails and will be the favourites to win," he said. "The fact that they made a slow start to the World League is a characteristic of their training. They have now developed into a team." Record winners Brazil did indeed get off to a slow start, only qualifying for the Finals at the last second, courtesy of two spectacular away wins against Italy. After a training camp in Finland, however, the team now feel ready to take on the top teams in the world.
"We worked very hard after the poor start. This hard work bore its first fruit when we qualified for the Finals – but we are obviously hungry for more," said playmaker Bruno Rezende. Brazil’s nine titles make them the record FIVB World League winner. However, the last of these wins came back in 2010. One good omen for the Selecao could be that they emerged victorious the last time a final round was held in Italy, in 2004. "We know that we go into the finals at full strength," said Sidao, who turned 32 last Wednesday. "Russia and Iran are two strong teams, there is no doubting that, but we have no choice: if we want to be champions, we must beat all the other teams."
The team ranked number twelve in the world, Iran, achieved the greatest success in its volleyball history when it progressed emphatically into the final round – knocking out Poland in the progress. The 2012 World League winners and hosts of the FIVB World Championship from August 30 to September 21 must watch the first major highlight of the season from afar. And Iranian coach Slobodan Kovac is looking to spring another upset against the two superpowers Russia and Brazil: "When we started the World League with two defeats, nobody believed in my team. But we proved that we have the quality to go through. My mentality is that our job never ends and we should always go for more victories. The players also have the same mentality."
As do the USA, who line up with the preliminary round’s top scorer Matthew Anderson (259 points). The Americans, whose only FIVB World League title came in 2008, are hungry for success. USA coach John Speraw said: "We are ready for the big games." They proved this in the preliminary round, when they won three of four matches against defending champions Russia. "We felt the power of the Americans," said Voronkov.
However, the Russian coach believes another team are one of the big favourites: "We must not forget the Italians. The Ivan Zaytsev generation is yet to win a big competition, and I am sure they would love to change all that with the support of its home crowd." Italy have won the FIVB World League eight times in the past, but the latest success came 14 years ago. The hosts spent last week in peaceful Cavalese, preparing for the hectic finals.
Coach Berrutto is optimistic that his squad can match the hot favourites from Russia and Brazil: "We won the group in the preliminary round. The six teams in Florence include the top four countries in the world. The time has come to show what we are capable of on the big stage. We obviously go into the event with our sights set on coming out on top."