Giani, who is on Italy’s coaching team – is one of only seven players in history who have claimed three consecutive gold medals at the FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championship. He shares this honour with another three members of Italy’s golden generation – Andrea Gardini, Ferdinando De Giorgi and Marco Bracci – and with three Brazilian players – Dante, Rodrigão, and Giba – who won triple gold in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Giani, who is now 43 years old, debuted at the FIVB Volleyball World Championship in 1990, when Italy won their first title after beating Cuba in the final.
“I remember that shortly before the start of the World Championship we lost a friendly match with the Netherlands and our coach Julio Velasco was furious,” he said. “So in order to shake a little bit the group, he decided that I would replace Andrea Zorzi in the starting six and De Giorgi would play for Paolo Tofoli in the matches of the first round we played in Brasilia. He evidently wanted to stimulate the group and mobilize our energy, and he eventually succeeded in doing this because we played better and better throughout the tournament. We claimed a very close semi-final beating hosts Brazil at the tie-break and then went on to take on Cuba. We had lost many times to them, including in the prelims of the tournament, and I think they were quite sure they would beat us again. However, we played a superb final game and in the end we won by 3:1.”
That was just the beginning of a golden era, which also helped raise the popularity of volleyball to a totally different level in Italy.
“Once we got back home, many people were waiting for us at the airport in Milan. We clearly got to feel that the team that had travelled back home was no longer perceived in the same way as by the time it had departed. We definitely got our own spot under the public eye.”
1994: Second gold after Olympic setback
Giani’s second title followed four years later in Athens.
“You never start a tournament expecting to win gold, but out of our three titles, this one was the most anticipated,” he said. “Since the start of our golden era in 1989 we had recorded a series of major successes, including two gold medals and one silver at the European Championship, and we wanted to fight back after a disappointing Olympic campaign in Barcelona. We definitely were the team to beat and we were supposed to have a shot at the title.
“Velasco had added some new players to the group – Papi, Giretto, and Pippi – and there is an interesting anecdote I can recall. I started the tournament playing as opposite while Zorzi was one of our middle-blockers but for the final match we again switched our roles. I don’t know how many players can do the same nowadays. Actually, there is one who did so at the London Olympics and he eventually brought gold to his team: Dmitriy Muserskiy.”
1998: Third gold with new generation
Most of the players who had written history for Italy decided to retire from the national team after the Olympics in Atlanta, where the “Azzurri” lost to the Netherlands a dramatic gold medal match. Giani, who was only 26 at that time, went on to play for Italy for another nine years, thereby totaling 474 caps – an all-time record – with the national team and winning a third World Championship gold in 1998.
“It is difficult to express the emotions that we got to feel on that day,” he said. “We really wanted to win especially since Velasco was no longer with us. We wanted to show that we had learned our lesson. We wanted to show to the world that our approach, our attitude, our mentality were still the same and that we could follow Julio’s instructions even though he was no longer at the helm of the team. The fact that we claimed a third consecutive title and only four players were still there from the group that had won in 1990 also tells you a lot about the quality and depth of our team.”
2014: Worlds from a coach’s perspective
Later this year, Giani will try to add another chapter to his success story, as Italy embarks on a quest for gold at the FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championship Poland 2014.
“We know it is going to be tough, but I am confident that we stand a fair chance to make it to the very last act of the tournament,” he said. “We also want to show that we continue to progress; we have won a number of international medals in recent times but never got gold. We were assigned to a difficult group but I see this as an opportunity. If we keep concentrated and are motivated, these difficult matches we will get to play early in the tournament will help us stand the challenges we will have to take on along the way to the final. It will be a nice build up. Our clear goal is to be there on that day where gold will be at stake.”
If this happens, Giani will add an extra honour to an already impressive and unique resume.