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Kovac and Iran eye surprise in Italy

Serbian Slobodan Kovac took over as Iran coach earlier this year and has already taken his team to Italy twice during the World League Intercontinental Round where they were on the losing side in straight sets on both occasions
Florence, Italy, July 15, 2014 - Iran's volleyball team may face an uphill battle in the FIVB Volleyball World League Group 1 Finals, which start on Wednesday in Florence, Italy, but their challenge represents a mere step towards a medal at the 2016 Olympics.

The team led by Serbian Slobodan Kovac was a surprise qualifier from Pool A, ahead of nine-time winner of the competition Brazil and 2012 champions Poland, coming second after heavyweights Italy.

"We started the competition as an underdog - with Brazil, the number one seed, Italy, the third, and Poland, number six, in our group," Kovac told AFP at a training session in Tehran's Azadi stadium before arriving in Florence.

But in twin four-game series Team Melli more than proved their talent, beating the Brazil and Poland sides twice, and losing twice.

FIVB Volleyball World League Group 1 Finals, from July 16 to 20, pits Iran against Russia, an invincible force in the past two years, and once again against Brazil, who in 2016 will host the Olympics.

Kovac wants to show "quality" and win at least one game this week.

"It is possible," he said. "We must respect our opponents but should not be afraid of them. We have a big appetite and we will play our best game in Italy."

Iran's main stars are captain Mir Saeed Marouflakrani, 29, and Mohammad Mousavi, a 26-year-old who is considered as best defender of the season so far. But passer Shahram Mahmoudi has been ruled out after spraining his left ankle.

"We have gained a lot of confidence in the past year," Mousavi said, arguing that Iran's moment of triumph was beating Brazil and Poland.

Everything is planned

Mahmoudi, a rising star at 24, said his absence would not affect the team's performance.

"They will fight to be in the final four. We can do it because the team is not dependent on one or two players," he added.

Iran's volleyball federation sees the tournament as a stepping stone.

By appointing the decorated Argentine coach Julio Velasco in 2011, it brought up a generation of talents and set eyes on glory by winning a medal in Brazil in 2016.

"Everything has been planned," said Mahmoudi of the strategy.

Velasco's Iran won two Asian championships in 2011 and 2013, and participated in the 2013 World League, clinching victories against Cuba, Italy, Serbia and Germany.

He left in February to coach his home country, which failed to qualify for the Finals.

After Florence, the Iranian outfit will play in the World Championship in Poland, from August 30 to September 21, and then the Asian Games from September 19 to October 4 in South Korea.

But to improve further, Iran's players must gain international experience, according to Kovac.

In European clubs, for example, "they will have to fight for a starting place, whereas in Iran their spot is guaranteed," he said.

Mousavi could be the first to move abroad, with interest from Turkey's Fenerbahce, and Italy's Modena.

Marouflakrani is considering an offer from a club in Ankara, while Milad Ebadipour has been approached by Verona.

Thanks to its rise to world-stage competitions, interest in volleyball has rapidly grown in Iran in recent years, and Kovac suggests it may become the number one sport in the Islamic republic, overtaking football.

"It's now difficult to get coffee in a shopping centre because so many people approach you and want to take photos, or just say hello," he said.

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