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More than just Mammadova: Azerbaijan’s ladies cause World Championship upset

Natalya Mammadova, Azerbaijan's star player, can now count on the increasing strength of other up-and-coming players on the team

Lausanne, Switzerland, January 21, 2014 - The Azerbaijani ladies posed with their national flag after celebrating a historic victory. Almost 2,000 spectators made the trip to the A.Y.S. Sport Hall BAKU to watch their heroines secure their ticket to the FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships Italy 2014 from September 23 to October 12, with a 3-2 win against Serbia.

Azerbaijan’s victory means the country will be represented at the highlight of the 2014 volleyball season for the first time since 2006. Even the European Volleyball Confederation rated the surprise success as perhaps the biggest upset of the entire World Championship qualifying process in Europe, as encapsulated in its headline “Azerbaijan causes sensation”.

“Obviously everybody was so happy, it was a great win and we qualified for the World Championship. Since we haven't made it to the championship for the last eight years, it was a great step forward for the team,” said Anastasiya Gurbanova who scored 21 points during the match to earn her the best player award in the final match.

The atmosphere both during and after the triumph was incredible, and the entire country is proud of its female volleyball stars: “The whole gym was packed with fans and spectators. Because everybody was waiting for this moment, we worked really hard to qualify – and we did it. Everybody - including the president - was proud of us.”

The team laid the foundation for its success with a 3-1 victory over Israel followed by a 3-0 demolition of Estonia. Having fallen 1-2 behind Serbia, the Azerbaijanis fought back to win 3-2 (18-16 in the final set) to pull off the coup. No mean feat, given that the Serbians are former European Champions and finished third in the 2013 FIVB World Grand Prix. “Before the match, the coach told us that our goal is to win a minimum of two sets to get the chance to go to the World Champs. As we accomplished this task, we thought: why stop at the minimum, when you can reach the maximum? Especially because the team was on the move and nearly impossible to stop,” said Captain Oksana Parkhomenko, describing the mood within the team.

One particular feature of the success was that the Azerbaijanis were not primarily reliant on their outstanding spiker Natalya Mammadova. The 29-year-old has been the recipient of various national and international awards as ‘Top Scorer’ over the course of her career, and was named ‘European Player of the Year’ in 2007. In the past, the success of the team that finished fourth in the 2005 European Championship was dependent on her form, but that is beginning to alter. “I just loved how Anastasiya Gurbanova played. She played very efficiently, and when it was difficult for Mammadova, Gurbanova showed leadership qualities and took over the game,” came praise from Parkhomenko.

Gurbanova herself was keen to point out how important the star player still is to the team. “As everybody already knows, Natasha Mammadova has been the best player in our team for a long time. Since she is the most experienced player, we definitely need her to lead the team,” commented Gurbanova. Looking ahead to the future Gurbanova said, “We have younger players who are good players, so hopefully in the future somebody will lead the team as well as Natasha has been doing for so many years.”

The fact that other players are now also able to step up to the mark and play at the highest level is thanks in part to the increasing strength of the national league. Top players and coaches from all over the world are being attracted to Baku with the promise of big financial rewards. The clubs in the capital are among the best in Europe. The Final Four of the European Champions League will take place in Baku on March 15 and 16, when Rabita Baku, with strong players like Rachel Rourke or Katarzyna Ewa Skowronska-Dolata, hope to finally bring the most important title in club volleyball back to Azerbaijan.

In the CEV Cup, Lokomotiv and Azerrail Baku are among the favourites to lift the trophy. “I can see the improvements. The girls are more confident, because they are already used to playing against big-name players. The foreign stars playing in Azerbaijan have helped us to grow and become better and stronger players,” said Gurbanova.

After ninth place in the 1994 World Championship and 13th in 2006, the team will now make its third appearance at the FIVB World Championship. Before then, the young players can gain more valuable experience in Azerbaijan’s strong national league and during the preparations for the Worlds. “I think that the team will be even better. And if we can successfully resist a team like Serbia, it underlines the fact that the team is capable of many things,” said Captain Parkhomenko. The Azerbaijani ladies already have their sights set on causing the next sensation.


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