The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in
the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same
man.” Vladimir Alekno has stepped into the river twice, though with
contrasting fortunes.
During his first spell in charge of the Russian men’s team Alekno failed
to win a single competition. The nadir came in 2007, when Russia lost
the European Championship final to Spain on home soil in Moscow.
A year later, on top of their game, Russia suffered a crushing defeat
against USA in the Olympic semifinals; bronze was no consolation for
the ambitious Alekno, who duly stepped down from his post.
But two years later he was back, declaring: “I think I can build a team
capable of achieving something no Russian team has done in 20 years:
winning a major tournament.” True to his word, Alekno led Russia
to victory in the World League in Gdansk, playing a stylish brand of
volleyball that made everyone believe Russia could finally become kings
of Europe.
But theywere foiled yet again, this time in themost bizarre circumstances.
Ahead of their European Championship semifinal against Serbia, one
of their main players arrived with the wrong shirt and had to go back
to the hotel to fetch the right one. The incident wrecked the team’s
concentration, and having lost the first set they were unable to regain
the momentum and Serbia went on to win the match.
Alekno believes he is unlucky and the reason for the team suffering so
many unfortunate defeats. However, such pessimistic thoughts were
surely assuaged by his team’s assured victory in the 2011 World Cup,
and there was no hint of bad luck when Zenit Kazan, Alekno’s club side,
secured victory in the CEV Champions League.
Alekno missed the start of the first training camp ahead of London 2012
as he was in Germany undergoing a major operation on his spine that
meant he needed to have metal plates inserted, as a result of which,
whenever he flies, he now needs a special permit enabling him to bypass
airport security controls.
After that period away, what made me happiest was my assistant
telling me that, during the 10 days I was absent, the players’ attitude
was beyond reproach. When I first started working with the national
team in 2007 there was a change in attitude. The players changed. They
probably realised the importance of what they were doing. That’s when I
understood that with the guys we had, we could beat anyone.”
Russia’s surprise victory at London 2012 was very much a triumph for
their coach, who demonstrated an uncanny knack for unorthodox
match-changing decisions. After a period of soul-searching, Alekno
recently announced that he planned to relinquish his national team
duties, to focus solely on his club role. But it is surely a matter of when,
not if, he returns once again to take charge of Russia.