Brazil's fantastic run continues

The Brazilian team celebrates after winning the World League final against Serbia and Montenegro in Madrid .-Pic. REUTERS

IT was samba time for Brazil in the $15 million men's World League, which was held in Madrid recently and the South American team put up a fantastic show while capturing the coveted title for the second time.

IT was samba time for Brazil in the $15 million men's World League, which was held in Madrid recently and the South American team put up a fantastic show while capturing the coveted title for the second time.

There were many surprises in the League this year before Brazil waged a big battle against Serbia and Montenegro (Yugoslavia), the Olympic winner, in the final that was stretched to five sets. And the biggest surprise was the elimination of the defending champion, Russia from the race. The European giant failed to qualify even for the semi-finals. In fact, the Russians scored eight consecutive victories in the first phase before losing to Poland in matches in which the champion side experimented with some young players. But before losing to Poland, Russia became the first team to qualify for the final round. And it gave such a good impression about its form that it became the hot favourite. But Brazil and Serbia overtook it in the title race. Such was the fierceness of the competition. But the most notable performance came from Czech Republic, which came into the league as one of the substitute teams because of the disqualification of Argentina and withdrawal of China, which was rattled by SARS. The Czechs played brilliantly in the first phase before reaching the semi-finals of the final round, where they lost to Brazil.

Another popular team that got buried in the battle for the title was Italy, a team with fantastic record in the League with eight titles under its belt. It was knocked out by Serbia in the semi-final and had to be content with the bronze. For the second successive year, Italy, which beat Brazil in Brasilia in a group match, came down crashing in the final round. Italy's performance in the first phase was also not impressive.

It has been a fantastic run of success for Brazil. Last year the South Americans captured the World championship title in Argentina and this year the World League title. These triumphs will prompt Brazil to have a tilt at the Olympic gold next year in Athens.

However, Brazil did not have it easy and it was down by 1-2 in sets before rallying in the later part of the game. Serbia's brilliant spiker Ivan `The Terrible' Miljkovic, who won the Best Spiker award, raked up 24 superb points to be the top scorer of the match and tournament and the Brazilians had their hands full in stopping this spiking giant. Giovani Gavio and Andre Nascimento delivered some killer spikes to lift Brazil's game and what followed was a fantastic fightback. Brazil would have definitely gone home with greater respect for Serbia, which pushed it to the limit, displaying excellent sportsmanship and skills.

While Brazil's game improved match after match, the Russian performance crumbled under pressure. Brazil rubbed salt into its wounds when it thrashed the European side 3-1 to make it to the semi-final, though Brazil's coach Nalbert said: "It is always difficult to play against Russia.'' It was a match of muscle versus magic and strength versus subtlety. Similarly, Czech Republic pulled off a 3-1 win against Spain to set itself against Brazil in the semi-final.

Brazil did not bother about Russia's height advantage and its lightning quick reactions, coupled with sensitive touch game, gave the team an edge right through. Nalbert's block and Rodrigo Santana's spike added to its strength. As the Russian setter Vadum Khamouttdkikh said his team played a `disastrous match.' The South American country breezed past Italy to be in the semi-finals. But Italy got the better of Bulgaria 3-1 to stay back in the tournament and Czech Republic spoiled the chances of Greece preparing for next year's Athens Olympics, entering the semi-finals with a 3-1 win. But before that in a group clash Greece scored a sensational 3-2 victory over Czech Republic and knocked out World championship bronze medallist France from the race. Greece also made it to the final round with that win.

Bulgaria, which returned to the League after a four-year gap, showed its class in the group phase by beating the Olympic champion Serbia thrice and earned a slot in the Super League.

Russia and Spain (host) from Pool `A', Italy and Brazil from Pool `B', Serbia and Bulgaria from Pool `C' and Czech Republic and Greece from Pool `D' qualified for the final round at Madrid. Poland and Venezuela from Pool `A', Portugal and Germany from Pool `B', the Netherlands and Cuba from Pool `C' and France and Japan from Pool `D' went out of the tournament. Bulgaria, Czech and Greece raised their level beyond expectations in the early stages, but failed in the final stretch. What were the reasons for such surprises? Significant rule changes introduced in 1999 changed the face and philosophy of the modern game, introducing the rally point system, the libero and the net serve. The result was a faster, dynamic game, easier to understand and much more creative. Now the sport's best and brightest wear the mantle of heroes and are helping to fuel volleyball's popularity.

By winning the League title Brazil has jumped to the top of the FIVB World Rankings table, but Russia lost the No. 1 position and slipped to third slot.

The following are the rankings, announced by the FIVB after the League: 1. Brazil (198 points) 2. Serbia & Montenegro (180) 3. Russia (170) 4. Italy (158) 5. France (96.50) 6. Argentina (95) 7. Netherlands (67.50) 8. Greece (61) 9. Czech Republic (59.50) 10. Spain (52.50).

The following received special awards: Top scorer: Ivan Miljkovic (Serbia); Top spiker: Martin Lebl (Czech); Top blocker: Andrija Geric (Serbia) and Top server: Andrija Geri (Serbia).

The results:

Final: Brazil beat Serbia and Montenegro 25-16, 21-25, 19-25, 25-23, 31-29.

Bronze medal match: Italy beat Czech Republic 22-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-19.