The stage is set for an exciting opening weekend of the 2009 FIVB World League in Caracas, Venezuela, as the hosts take on Finland in Group D action at 7:00 p.m. (local time) on Friday.
The cheerful and boisterous people of the Venezuelan capital will come out in force to support their team at the Poliedro de Caracas, just as they did last year, when more than 60,000 people turned up for six games, the third-best attendance figure after Brazil and Cuba during the 2008 edition of the elite international Volleyball competition.
The upcoming edition of the World League will be the sixth for Venezuela, which is currently 14th in the FIVB World Rankings, tied with Australia. Venezuela participated in the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2008 editions, although unfortunately the team only won once in 12 games last year to finish 16th.
Finland will be taking part in its fifth World League competition and fourth in a row. In the last three years, Finland placed 10th, 7th and 10th and has a record of 15-21 in the tournament.
Venezuela is without its principal attacker, Ernardo "Harry" Gómez, and his substitute, Carlos Tejeda, both of whom are injured. 24-year-old Ismel Ramos, with three years of experience in the Finnish league, will take on the responsibility of wing-spiker.
The South American team also has other players that play in top international leagues, including Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Greece and Argentina. Among the players who have major international experience are Andy Rojas (captain), Luis Díaz, Carlos Luna, Fredy Cedeño, Ronald Méndez, Iván Márquez, Rodman Valera, Juan Carlos Blanco, Thomas Ereú and libero Joel Silva. They will be supported by 20-year-old Fernando González, who is making his World League debut.
Head coach Alexander Gutiérrez, 38, will lead the "vinotinto," which last year experienced for the first time the satisfaction of taking part in an Olympic Games.
The Finns, meanwhile, are happy to have their captain Tuomas Sammelvuo back after a long rest. World League debutants for Finland will be Jesse Mäntylä and Jari Tuominen. Matti Oivanen and Konstantin Shumov, on the other hand, are back after playing 36 games for Finland in the competition over the last three years.
Also at the disposal of Finland's Italian coach Mauro Berruto are four players who ply their trade in Italy's A1 League: Mikko Esko, Tuomas Sammelvuo, Konstantin Shumov and Matti Hietanen. Other Finns playing overseas are Janne Heikkinen, Mikko Oivanen and Olli Kunnari (Poland); Matti Oivanen (France), Antti Siltala and Jukka Lehtonen (Greece), Jari Tuomien (Latvia) and Urpo Sivula (Turkey).
Fellow Group D opponents Brazil and Poland will play in Brazil this weekend.