1949: Soviet Union win inaugural World Championships
1949: The Soviet Union win the inaugural FIVB World Championships
In 1895, William G. Morgan, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Director of Physical Education, invented a new game, which was originally known as “Mintonette”. One year later, it was given the name volleyball. It then took over five decades before standard international rules were introduced for the sport, which was by then played by millions of people around the world.
In 1947, 14 federations met at the Grand Hotel in Paris to form the FIVB. Frenchman Paul Libaud became the first president.
Just two years after the International Volleyball Federation was formed, the inaugural World Championships were held. The first tournament to determine the best volleyball team on the planet was reserved for men’s teams. This is the only time ladies were excluded from the history of the World Championships.
In the summer of 1949, 10 teams met for the global showdown in Prague, Czechoslovakia. It was, for all practical purposes, a European championship, with all 10 teams involved from Europe. The matches were held in an open-air stadium, on a repurposed outdoor tennis court. From these humble beginnings were born one of the great competitions and traditions in international sport.
The first World Championships ever featured a total of 30 matches and were dominated by Eastern European teams. Gold went to the Soviet Union, who had only joined the FIVB one year before, despite volleyball being one of the national sports in that country, with Czechoslovakia winning silver. Cheered on by thousands of fans, the hosts were unable to repeat their success of the previous year, when they won the first European Championships in Rome. Bulgaria took the bronze, followed by Poland and Romania. France, in sixth place, was the best-placed Western European country. The remaining positions at the inaugural World Championships were occupied by Hungary, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Soviet Union, with an experienced squad including Sergey Nefedov, Mikhail Pimenov, Konstantin Reva, Vladimir Savin, Vladimir Shagin, Pavel Voronin and Alexey Yakushev – for many of them the early period of international volleyball represented a fantastic success story – lost just two sets in their eight tournament matches. The world champions to be came through the preliminary round, which consisted of one pool with four teams and a further two pools with three teams each, without losing a single set. It was only once the field had been whittled down to the top six teams, with each team facing each other, that the Soviet Union team were really tested. The champions dropped one set against Romania and another against Czechoslovakia.
The duel against the hosts, who did not lose another set over the course of the entire tournament, proved to be the decisive match. With the Soviet Union leading 2:0, Czechoslovakia won the third set to close the gap and took the lead in the fourth set. It all pointed towards a fifth set, but the eventual world champions held their nerve and battled through to win in four sets.
The first World Championships marked the start of two success stories. For the Soviet Union, it was the first of six world titles. The successor state, Russia, has its sights set on gold number seven at this year’s competition. The biggest winner to emerge from the historic tournament in 1949, however, was volleyball. The open-air showdown in Czechoslovakia heralded the start of the sport’s huge popularity around the world.