1978: Italy and Cuba step into World Championships spotlight
The Soviet Union claimed their fifth FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship in 1978, but it was Italy who made the strongest impression between September 20 and October 1, emerging as a major power in the game in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The Italian team included stars like Negri, Lanfranco and Di Coste, who were subsequently voted into the World Team. They were making their sixth appearance in the World Championship, with their best result an eighth place at the premiere of the competition back in 1949, and caused one shock after another in 1978.
Victories over former World Champions the German Democratic Republic (3-1) and Bulgaria (3-0) in the group stage saw them progress to the semifinals, surprising many people on the way. The knockout stage was making its first appearance in a World Championship and the Italians immediately came up against one of the hot favourites for the title - Cuba. Italy, however, showed incredible fighting spirit to defend even the hardest of smashes from the powerful Cubans and come away with a 3-1 victory. Only in the final did the Italians finally come unstuck, against the rejuvenated record champions from the Soviet Union.
The Soviets had already overcome Italy 3-0 in the preliminary round, and they repeated that feat in front of 16,000 passionate Tifosi in the Palazzo dello Sport. The Soviet Union won 3-0 (15-10, 15-13, 15-1) and only once looked in any real trouble, when they briefly trailed the Italians 11-13 in the second set. The two-metre tall Alexander Savin was particularly instrumental in the Soviet team's victory. The winners arrived at the tournament as the reigning European Champions and claimed their fifth World Championship title - which was also their first for 16 years. Defending champions Poland, on the other hand, did not play a major role and had to settle for eighth place.
There were more surprises in the 24-team tournament, which - for the first time - was not dominated by Eastern Europe. Sixth-placed Brazil and Korea were also particularly impressive. The Korean team had not been a major force at World Championships up to that point, but caught the imagination of the volleyball world with their flexible style of play, led by 1.72m setter Kim Ho Chul. They eventually had to settle for fourth place, however, as the attacking force of Cuba came out on top in the third-place playoff.
And it was the Caribbean island which caused the biggest upheaval in the women’s tournament, from August 25 to September 6. The Cubans had finished seventh in the 1974 World Championship and fifth at the Olympic Games in 1976. Two years later, they were crowned World Champions. And the shock was all the greater as the Cuban triumph came in the previously dominant Soviet Union's backyard. The hosts, who came into the tournament with four gold and two silver medals from their previous six outings, had to settle for third place. Their title aspirations were dashed in a 1-3 semifinal defeat to Cuba.
The Cuban team, who were built around legendary superstars Mercedes “Momita” Perez and Mercedes Pomares, also led defending champions Japan a merry dance in the competition's final, winning 3-0 (15-6, 15-9, 15-10). The team from the Far East had come through a tough 3-2 battle with the USA, who had developed into one of the world’s top teams under coach Arie Selinger. The Americans finished fifth overall and were one of the positive surprises to come out of the showdown, as were sixth-placed China. The Chinese only missed out on the semifinals due to a poorer set difference (12:4) than Korea (13:3) and the Soviet Union (12:3).
The stars of the show, however, were the Cubans. Nine wins and a set difference of 27:2 confirmed the superiority of the new super power on the international volleyball stage.
Read about earlier editions of the World Championships by clicking on the links below:
1974: Poland surprise favourites to win Men's World Championships
1970: Surprise World Championship gold for the German Democratic Republic
1966 and 1967: Soviet Union empty-handed for the first time
1962: Japan’s ladies produced “volleyball from another planet” to end the dominance of the hosts, the Soviet Union
1960: Volleyball fever in Brazil, both World Championship titles go to the Soviet Union again
1956: Czechoslovakia claim trophy in Paris
1952: Soviet Union win double gold in Moscow
1949: Soviet Union win inaugural World Championships