Poland, a surprise winner

In less than 10 years the Indian team tried hard to make some impact, for the second time, in the World junior men's volleyball championship. This time the event was held in Tehran in August.

M. C. RAMANM. C. Raman

In less than 10 years the Indian team tried hard to make some impact, for the second time, in the World junior men's volleyball championship. This time the event was held in Tehran in August.

Poland's coach Rys Grzegorz is being tossed by the players after the team's title victory in the 12th World junior championship in Teheran.-

It was in 1980, the Indian junior team qualified for the World championship for the first time. It was considered as a major step for Indian volleyball at that time. But that squad, without much preparation for the prestigious event, finished 11th. though talent-wise it was a pretty strong outfit. It was also a maiden attempt in gaining experience in world competitions. After that India drew blank till 1994 when Shyam Sundar Rao assembled a strong junior side that beat Japan and China twice — first in the Asian champion and again in the Asian qualifier — and made it to the World championship, held at Johar Bahru (Malaysia) in 1995.

So it was another big chance for India to prove its worth at the World championship. This time the team had prepared well and had some match practice too. But it was not adequate. Still much was expected from the side that had Ravikanth Reddy, who was one of the best setters of the tournament, Joby Joseph, the leading spiker of the team, Aman and Surjit Singh, a class back court attacker. Despite its immense talent, the team could finish only ninth. In fact, it started well by taking a 10-0 lead against Russia in the first set and then lost the match in four sets. Then it fought a five-setter against Poland after taking the first two sets. Then it beat Algeria to qualify for the next stage. But it could not go beyond that point.

This year, the two Indian junior squads did extremely well to earn places in the World championship. First, the Indian Youth (under 19) team won the Asian championship, beating the defending champion Iran in the final at Visakhapatnam. Having qualified for the World competition as Asia No. 1, the team boldly plunged into the major competition and had a fantastic run of success before reaching the final. It beat the defending champion, Brazil, Czech Republic and Poland in the group phase and then Puerto Rico and Iran to reach the final where it lost to Brazil.

That was an incredible achievement by any Indian team in a World championship. So when the Indian junior outfit left for Tehran for the next major event there were expectations. Before this, the juniors went to Tunisia and Egypt for practice matches. So they were getting ready to face the challenge. But things went wrong in Iran.

India's Kasi (7), Nadarajan (14) , Kishore (1), Arun (12) are jubilant after scoring a point over Russia in a Pool 'B' match. Russia ultimately blanked India 3-0.-

It was a tough pool. There was absolutely no doubt about that. Germany, Russia and China were clubbed with India. Germany skipped even the World Youth championship to prepare for this competition and was a threat to others. Russia, which was beaten by Brazil in the previous tournament final, was another strong outfit, getting ready to avenge that defeat. And China, like South Korea, was expected to be a rejuvenated side. So it was not an easy task for India.

The Indian team was a mix of youth and junior players. Whether such a mix was right or wrong was debatable. But the Indian coach, M. H. Kumara, opted for almost the same team that took part in the Asian championship. Was that a tactical blunder? It was for the first time the Indian side was taking part in a World championship. Did the players were overawed by the occasion? Should the coach have opted for the team of youth players who had already played boldly in the World tournament and had withstood that pressure? That could have been an option for the coach. The youth players, setter Kamaraj, Sanjay Kumar, blocker Dinesh and Srikanth could have given India a head start.

It was a gamble worth trying. Then the coach could have brought in the junior players. But that did not happen and India, despite its leads in the first two sets, lost the match tamely to Germany, which fielded 212 cm Robert Kromm when it was in trouble and escaped.

It was a bad start for a team, which landed in Tehran with high hopes, but got a big jolt. India ran into Russia next. The former champion was not even a favourite because of its poor show in the last European championship. Italy was the European champion and France and Germany came second and third. But within a year, none of these teams could reach the top positions in the World junior championship. There was an amazing turnaround in the fortunes of lower ranked European teams. Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia-Montenegro and Slovakia prepared well for the Tehran show and asserted their superiority. But Italy had the humiliation of leaving Iran without a single victory in its group. France did not figure in this championship because of its bad performance in the qualifiers and Germany, which was not rated so high, bowed out in the quarterfinals.

So in the battle for places, the European squads made it tough for Asian and South American outfits, including the defending champion, Brazil. Unlike the World Youth championship in which three Asian squads, India, Iran and Australia, topped their respective groups and considerably reduced the importance of European continent, the junior championship saw the total domination of Europe from start to finish. Russia and Serbia topped their respective groups, but Poland came back strongly in the later stages to wrest the title. The two other continent teams that did well were South Korea, which finished No. 4 in the Asian championship, but played brilliantly in Tehran to reach the semi-finals, and Brazil, which performed well in the early stages, but lost its grip in the final. In fact, Korea, which defeated Iran in Pool 'A,' topped that group and Brazil stood first in Pool 'C,' thrashing even Poland 3-0. However, in the final, Poland avenged that defeat with a gritty performance.

Poland Sebia, Bulgaria, Russia, Korea, Germany , Brazil and Iran qualified for the quarter-finals. China, Tunisia and Italy, the European champion, crashed out of the event, losing all their ties in their groups. So in the quarter-finals there were five European, two Asian and one South American teams. Iran went out at this stage, losing badly to Brazil. But Korea fought its way past Germany into semi-finals. But later, Korea failed miserably against Brazil in the penultimate round. Left-arm spiker Chul-woo Park, Dong-jin Kang, Hak-min Kim and setter Byung-Il Song were mainly responsible for Korea's progress upto the the semi-finals. Korea's progress was a big surprise when compared to the failure of Asia's No. 1 Iran and No. 2 India.

Iran's Kolivand (11) and Mostafavand (2) try to block Russia's Kruglov Pavel as Kalinine (8) watches in the five-six placing match. Russia took the fifth place.-

By now it was clear Brazil was emerging as the hot favourite. As it beat Russia 3-1 in the play-off for group toppers it became even more clear that the team would be on top. Samuel, Zanuto, Wallace, Silva and Eder, along with libero Greca, made Brazil a dreaded side. But Poland had other ideas. It was improving by every outing. By beating Bulgaria in the semi-final it became a threat. Poland's captain Michal Winiarski, Mariusz Wlazly, Michal Ruciak, Dariusz Szulik and Olejniczak, who played brilliantly against Bulgaria, took their team to victory podium. Not many people gave the team a chance against Brazil, but Poland, which won the title only once before in 1997 at Bahrain, showed excellent fighting spirit. Brazil was overconfident and was erratic with its serve and attack. This poor showing brought down the defending champion.

Russia has won the title six times, four times as USSR, Poland twice, Bulgaria and South Korea once each. This clearly indicates the power of Europe in volleyball.

The final rankings:

1. Poland 2. Brazil 3. Bulgaria 4. Korea 5. Russia 6. Iran 7. Serbia 8. Germany 9. India, Egypt, Slovakia and Canada.

The results:

Final; Poland beat Brazil 25-23, 20-25, 25-23, 22-25, 15-11.

For third place; Bulgaria beat Korea 25-19, 25-16, 25-21.

Semi-finals: Poland beat Bulgaria 21-25, 27-25, 25-20, 25-21, Brazil beat Korea 25-18, 25-20, 25-19.

Quarter-finals: Poland beat Serbia 26-24, 25-23, 22-25, 25-23, Bulgaria beat Russia 25-21, 16-25, 25-23, 25-19, Korea beat Germany 24-26, 25-21, 25-19, 23-25, 15-11, Brazil beat Iran 25-21, 25-20, 25-20.