1986: USA bring a halt to East European dominance
The FIVB Men’s World Championship had been held ten times and East European teams had emerged victorious on ten occasions. This run finally came to an end in 1986 - appropriately at the birthplace of the FIVB in Paris, France - and the changing of the guard came courtesy of a first title for the USA.
The United States initiated the shift in power by taking gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, which some countries boycotted, and by winning the 1985 World Cup. The final proof came in the World Championship final, however, in front of 15,000 fans at the Palais Omnisport, which the USA won 3-1 (12-15, 15-11, 15-8, 15-12) against the record champions from the Soviet Union.
“King Charles defeats Tsar Alexander” was the headline the following day. King Charles was the legendary American “Karch” Kiraly, who won his personal duel with Russian counterpart Alexander Savin, the previous decade's outstanding volleyball player. The team from the land of the star-spangled banner, which also included players like setter Dusty Dvorak and Bob Ctvrtlik, brought a fresher and more modern style of play to the tournament.
The Soviet Union’s task was made even more difficult by the fact that 34-year-old setter Vyacheslav Zaytsev was suffering from a bad bout of flu in the final. Successful coach Vyacheslav Platonov was also forced to step down from his position just a few months before the World Championship due to a serious illness. The Soviets settled for silver, even if they did defeat the United States 3-1 in the preliminary round. The two dominant teams were head and shoulders above the other countries in the field of 16.
Bronze went to Bulgaria, who beat Brazil 3-0 to gain revenge for defeat in the preliminary round. Behind the top four, there was further evidence that East European dominance was drawing to an end. Fifth place went to Cuba and their rising star Joel Despaigne, followed by hosts France, who were not quite able to meet their own high expectations. Seventh place went to Argentina, who had won a medal when they hosted the competition four years earlier.
The ladies from Peru had achieved something very special in 1982, when they hosted the tournament and won the silver medal. The diminutive women from the Andes proved that this success was no coincidence four years later at the title showdown in Czechoslovakia. The semifinal may have produced a repeat of the 1982 final – a clear 3-0 defeat to China – but the third/fourth place playoff saw the outstanding Cecilia Tait and Co. overcome the surprise team from the German Democratic Republic 3-1. The East Germans had fought back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 against record champions the Soviet Union in the preliminary round, dashing any hopes of a medal for the Soviets in the process.
None of these teams, however, could do anything to stop defending champions China, who only lost two sets in the entire tournament. The Chinese defeated the challengers from Cuba 3-1 (15-6, 15-7, 10-15, 15-9) in the final, which took place in front of a sell-out crowd of 8500 in Prague’s Fučík Park. Although the outstanding stars from 1982 and 1984, Lang Ping and Zhang Rongfang, were only present as coaches this time, the team, with Yang Xilan pulling the strings, dominated thanks to its mobility and flexibility.
To make matters worse for the Cubans, 19-year-old prodigy Mireya Luis gave birth to a daughter just four weeks before the final and had not yet returned to full strength. The Caribbean team’s top two attackers - Josefina Capote and Lazara Gonzales - were also unable to break through the Chinese defence. The Cubans’ first medal at the World Championships was a sign of things to come, however – as was a fifth place for the Brazilians.
Read about earlier editions of the World Championships by clicking on the links below:
1982: The Soviet Union and China win gold at World Championships
1978: Italy and Cuba step into World Championships spotlight
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