1990: Last World Championship title for the Soviet Union and first for Italy
Lausanne, Switzerland, July 31, 2014 - The 1990 FIVB Volleyball World Championships fell right in the midst of a period of political upheaval across the world.
The two German teams made their final appearances as separate countries at the ladies’ championships from August 22 to September 1 in China, which came just weeks before German reunification. They did not play a major role at the top end of the tournament, however, finishing 12th (German Democratic Republic) and 13th (Federal Republic of Germany).
The ladies who came out on top in China came from a country making its final appearance under an extremely familiar name: the Soviet Union. The huge empire, which not long after would break up into individual states, went out with a bang. Twenty years on from their last World Championship gold, the team featuring MVP Irina Parkhorritchuk clinched its fifth title in eleven championships.
The early signs all pointed towards hosts China completing a hat-trick of World Championship titles. The local heroes, with top server Li Guojun among their ranks, marched comfortably through the preliminary round and early knock-out stages without losing a set. They then came unstuck, however, against the Soviet Union in the final. The athletic record world champions triumphed 3-1 in a jam-packed arena. USA took the bronze ahead of the highly rated team from Cuba. The rest of the 1990s, though, would belong to Cuba who, inspired by the likes of Regla Torres and Mireya Luis, would win three Olympic gold medals and two World Championship titles.
Peru, who had won medals at both of the previous World Championships, had to settle for sixth place behind Korea. The three-time World Champions from Japan finished well down in eighth.
There was a big shift in power at the men’s showdown in Brazil. Defending champions USA suffered three defeats in the preliminary round and ended the competition in a somewhat embarrassing 13th place. The men’s team of record world champions the Soviet Union - defeated finalists in 1986 - bid farewell to the international stage with a bronze. They ended the medal hopes of hosts Brazil with a brutal 3-0 drubbing in the third/fourth place play-off. Brazil had previously lost 2-3 to Italy in a dramatic semifinal. The Azzurri showed stronger nerves to win the tiebreak in the bubbling arena 15-13. With the Soviet Union losing 1-3 to Cuba, it was clear even before the final that the 1990 tournament would be won by a country that was yet to win gold at the FIVB World Championships.
Italy finally won their first gold with a 3-1 victory in the final. Having previously won gold at the European Championship and finished runner-up at the 1989 FIVB World Cup, this was no longer a major shock. However, after a poor start it was still a bit of a surprise for the team coached by the legendary Julio Velasco, who is still active today in his home of Argentina. Italy lost 0-3 in the preliminary round to their eventual final opponents Cuba, and also struggled to overcome Bulgaria 3-1.
The Italian team’s flexible game, however, really began to pick up momentum from then on, with players like Andrea Luchetta and Lorenzo Bernardi finding their form. Italian star Andrea Giani recalled: “I remember that shortly before the start of the World Championship we lost a friendly match with the Netherlands and our coach Julio Velasco was furious. So in order to shake the group up a little bit, he decided that I would replace Andrea Zorzi in the starting six and De Giorgi would play for Paolo Tofoli in the first-round matches in Brasilia. He evidently wanted to stimulate the group and mobilise our energy, and he eventually succeeded in doing this because we played better and better throughout the tournament,” said Giani. “We won a very close semi-final, beating hosts Brazil in the tie-break, and then went on to take on Cuba. We had lost many times to them, including in the prelims of the tournament, and I think they were quite sure they would beat us again. However, we played a superb final game and in the end we won by 3-1.”
That was just the beginning of a golden era, which also helped raise the popularity of volleyball to a totally different level in Italy. Giani remembered that: “Once we got back home, many people were waiting for us at the airport in Milan. We clearly got to feel that the team that had traveled back home was no longer perceived in the same way as when it had departed. We definitely got our own spot in the public eye.”
Read about earlier editions of the World Championships by clicking on the links below:
1986: USA bring a halt to East European dominance
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