On the African continent, the year kicks off with three tournaments in Cameroon, Tunisia and Egypt, each featuring five teams, from which a further three finalists will be determined. Countries in the NORCECA confederation must wait the longest to discover their fate, with four qualifying tournaments (each with four teams) scheduled for May and June in the USA, Cuba, Canada and Puerto Rico, as well as a continental play-off from July 9 to 14. By the end of this, a further five teams will have booked their place at the World Championships. Those who qualify will earn tickets to the Polish cities of Gdansk, Wroclaw, Bydgoszcz, Katowice, Lodz and Krakow. Ten of the 24 finalists have already been confirmed: hosts Poland, Olympic champions Russia and Italy from Europe, Australia, Iran, China and Korea from Asia, and Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil from South America.
A glance at the history of the World Championship reveals why the hosts of the 2016 Olympic Games are also the hot favourites to claim the title this year. After all, the last time the World Championship trophy went to a different country was back in 1998, when Italy were victorious. The Brazilians won a hat-trick of back-to-back titles in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and could make history with a fourth win in a row. “I hope we will continue to win in the coming years,” said Brazil’s star coach Bernardo Rezende after the recent triumph in the Grand Champions Cup. However, the South Americans will face a stern test. The Russians, in particular, are hungry for the title – they have after all won every other major title over the past two years, with victory in the Olympics, the European Championship and the World League.
Even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was keen to emphasise the importance of success in his speech to mark the 90th anniversary of volleyball in Russia: “Those who were involved in a tense and uncompromising struggle to win gold at the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships, strengthened the international prestige of the country. They turned volleyball into a popular and truly national sport. Their names and achievements, our common pride, our national heritage. It is gratifying that Russian volleyball players strive to be worthy of this winning record today, taking their cue from their predecessors.”
With six titles to its name, Russia’s predecessor the Soviet Union is the most successful nation since the first World Championship title was played out in 1949. However, it is now 32 years since the last gold medal (1982 in Buenos Aires). Brazil and Italy have both climbed onto the top step of the podium on three occasions, while Czechoslovakia triumphed on two occasions. The USA, East Germany and Poland each have one title to their name. Every one of the millions of volleyball fans in the host nation of Poland is obviously dreaming of a repeat of the triumph in Mexico City, 1974. The Polish national team is taking a completely different approach in order to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The year prior to the World Championship proved to be more than disappointing, with Poland crashing out in the preliminary round as it failed to defend its World League title and also missing out on the medals at the European Championship on home soil. As a consequence, coach Andrea Anastasi was forced to step aside from his role. To the surprise of the volleyball world, legendary French player Stephane Antiga was announced as his successor. Antiga will continue to play for Poland’s multiple champions PGE Skra Belchatow up to the end of the current season and so will cross paths with many players he will mentor later in the national team. “It will be an unusual situation, but I think this will add some extra motivation to the players,” Antiga said. “As for my current colleagues at PGE Skra, this appointment was a huge surprise.” Maybe this was one reason why Antiga was presented with a shirt with the text “Antiga coach” on it when he was introduced.
Poland Volleyball Federation President Miroslaw Przedpelski is utterly convinced by his “Antiga plan”. “His appointment as head coach of our national team is a very good idea that is going to be beneficial for the players, the clubs, and everyone who is working for the good of volleyball. With this change we will make sure that we can achieve the best possible result at the FIVB Volleyball World Championship here in Poland.”
Antiga has a plan in place to achieve this goal: “I will try to put together a very solid group, including all players who will be available for the national team. The most important things I will insist on are mutual respect, trust, communication, and – above all – hard work.” This – and a rejuvenation in recent years – is also a secret of the success enjoyed by the ever-improving Italians, who finished third in the World League. The team, which features top scorer Ivan Zaytsev, is one of the dark horses. The same can be said of Iran and their star coach Julio Velasco, who himself won the World Championship with Italy in 1990 and 1994. One familiar face missing from this year’s tournament is Japan, who missed out on qualification.
The rapid growth in the number of countries involved in the qualifying process is emphatic proof of just how tough the competition is around the world. While 113 teams strived for a ticket to the 2010 World Championship, this number had risen to 154 this time around, with national teams ranging from Guadeloupe and the Ivory Coast to Yemen. A total of 100 matches in a new competition format await the 24 finalists in Poland. The 24 teams will be spread across four pools of six teams playing in a round-robin system with the top four teams advancing to a second round of preliminary matches featuring two pools of eight teams. The top four from each pool will then advance to the quarterfinal phase, followed by semifinals and finals.Quarterfinals, semifinals and finals last featured at a FIVB World Championship in 2002. This heralded the start of Brazil’s winning streak – is the countdown now on to the end of this run?