This Is Volleyball

FIVB Women’s World Championships Italy 2014

The Final: Milan

I was sitting in the café of the sport centre enjoying a sandwich and a coffee when I became aware of a flurry of activity involving armed police, ‘men in black’ (with the giveaway curly wire behind their ear) and a number of well-dressed men and women forming what can only be described as a guard of honour. A convoy of black cars with flashing blue lights then suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Tucked in amongst the convoy was a particularly sleek black limousine which drew to a halt outside the entrance to the sports centre. Two ‘men-in-black’ stepped out first, clearly on a state of alert, to be followed by a smartly dressed gentleman who was very obviously the focal point of attention. Several handshakes later he was ushered inside and disappeared from view.

There was a TV in the café which had been showing news items since I arrived. Suddenly it cut away to a live event. Very surreally the picture focused on the smartly dressed gentleman who had minutes ago stepped out of the black limousine. It looked as though he was speaking to a group of female sportspeople of some description. But they weren’t any ordinary female sportspeople. They were the Italian Women’s National Volleyball Team and he was Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. Then again, this wasn’t any café in any sports centre. This was the Mediolanum Forum in Milan, the venue for the Final of the FIVB Women’s World Championships 2014.

As I finished my coffee and watched the Italian Prime Minister being whisked away from the venue as swiftly as he had arrived I reflected on what was about to unfold. Almost 15 months earlier Scotland Senior Women had competed in the first round of the World Championship Qualification in Malta. Now we were down to the final six countries and I was in the privileged position of about to witness over the next five days who would be crowned World Champions. It was all was quite bemusing to think we had been part of this all those months ago.

The Mediolanum Forum sits to the south west on the outskirts of the centre of Milan. It is a fairly imposing building, comparable in size to the Hydro in Glasgow, although much less modern in design. The outside of the building and its perimeter area were bedecked in blue and gold FIVB World Championship branding. Everywhere you looked you were met with the bold strapline, ‘This Is Volleyball’. Having arrived early I was one of the first spectators to take up my place once the gates had been opened and tickets were checked. The branding and lighting was even bolder and bigger on the inside. Even although it was relatively empty at that stage, save for the scurry of organisers, media people and stewards, it was quite a spectacle with its 13,000 seats set in three banked tiers on all four sides. Little did I know just what a spectacle it was going to be later that evening when the Italian Women stepped onto court to a full house.

Phase 1 of the final tournament kicked off in Rome, Trieste, Verona and Bari on Tuesday 23 September with thirty two countries all hoping to make it through to Milan. By the time the tournament reached Phase 2 on Wednesday 1 October only sixteen counties remained. It was now Wednesday 8 October and the remaining six countries had successfully come through twelve matches each to reach the final Phase. The six countries who had battled through were hosts Italy, USA and Russia in Pool G and Brazil, Dominican Republic and China in Pool H. The top two teams from each pool would then progress to the semi-finals. Potentially five matches remained between each team and the title of Women’s World Champions 2014.

As time drew closer to the opening match between reigning Olympic Champions Brazil and China the activity in the hall very quickly ramped up. The music started to boom out heavy beats and the large video screens set high in the arena showed montages of the previous rounds play with suitably inspiring voice overs. With about forty five minutes until the first ball was served the MC for the tournament appeared and went through his repertoire in Italian and English to whip up the excitement in the crowd. He momentarily stepped aside as the lights dimmed and the playing court area became a giant projector screen on which was played an eye-catching video introducing the event and emphatically repeating the message ‘This Is Volleyball’.

When play began on court it certainly lived up to the glitzy pre-show!

Brazil made short shift of a young Chinese side whose average age was 23 (and included two 18 year olds). The match was won and lost on the serve-pass battle, an area the SWNTP has focused on for the last two years. The Chinese passing unit struggled to come to terms with the tough Brazilian serving and as a result their offensive play was littered with errors.
From a coaching perspective it was interesting to see for the first time the use of video challenges similar to those seen in tennis. Each Coach had two video challenges which were used to contest line calls or top of the net calls. The challenge had to be made no more than five seconds after the rally ended and it was up to the Referee to accept the challenge or not. If successful the Coach retained the challenge but if it was upheld then the challenge was lost. Over the course of the tournament only a small proportion of the challenges were successful, which I’d like to think was a reflection on the standard of officiating. Increasingly, there was a very clear tactical use of the challenge system by some Coaches once all their available timeouts and substitutions had run dry. It was fascinating to see how quickly this new concept had been adopted as another part of the Coach’s tactical armoury.

No sooner had Brazil and China exited the arena than the MC returned to inject the next dose of energy into the crowd. But he didn’t really need to work that hard. While the hall had been two thirds full for the previous game there were very few empty seats for the next one which just happened to be USA v Italy. USA entered first to applause from all sides of the arena. When the Italians ran onto court the decibel level shot up. It hit me like a wave. I’ve been at many top level sporting events in my time but I have to confess hearing 13,000 Italians sing their national anthem in this tightly banked arena made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. If I’d known the words I’d have joined in!

In comparison to the opening match USA and Italy played at a much higher tempo. Both sides made effective use of the middle backed up by strong outside hitting. The contest was evenly balanced all the way through set one until Italy edged away and drilled the final point of the set. The crowd went nuts! The Italian players couldn’t help but be carried along by this almost tangible patriotic wave of energy and began to dominate the match. The Liberos on both sides were outstanding not just in terms of their passing and defence but also for the way they created attacking opportunities when
the Setters were taken out of play. This was a feature of all the teams in the Final 6 and something that struck a chord with me from a coaching perspective.

Thursday 9 October saw the first appearances in the Final 6 for the Dominican Republic and Russia. The Dominican Republic was the surprise package of the tournament as they weren’t expected to reach this stage. They were a strong and athletic side with particularly damaging serving that included two powerful jump servers. They used this to great effect in the opening two sets in the match against China who hadn’t had much time to lick their wounds from the previous evening’s loss to Brazil. It looked as though the young Chinese side was heading out of the tournament when the Dominican Republic established a 2-0 set lead. But back they came and comfortably reached set point in the third. China kept their hopes alive with a thunderous hit through zone 4 but it came at great expense when the outside hitter landed very badly on her ankle. After a delay she was stretchered off in obvious pain. At that point you felt this would be all too much for the young players to handle but in fact the reverse happened. The incident seemed to galvanise the players and once they levelled at 2-2 there was only going to be one winner. You could visibly see the energy and belief drain from the Dominican players.

The final match of the day pitched the USA against Russia. USA need to win to have any chance of making the semi-finals. Russia included volleyball superstar Yekaterina Gamova who had returned to the National team in a bid to win her third World Championship gold. However, she failed to ignite her team who struggled to cope with the American’s weight of attack and resilient defence. While Russia rallied a little to win set three it was only a temporary reprieve as the USA deservedly went on to win 3-1. Their passage to the semi-final would depend on the final matches to be played on Friday.

By virtue of Thursday’s results both Brazil and Italy booked their place in the semi-finals before they even stepped on court for the final Phase 3 matches. As it was Brazil made short shift of the Dominican Republic cruising to a 3-0 win. However, the Dominican players could hold their heads high after a magnificent performance overall and I am certain they will be a force to be reckoned with when the Rio Olympic Games come round in 2016. Although Italy had already qualified for Saturday’s semi-finals they were looking to finish the group in top spot so as to avoid a clash with on-form Brazil. They opened with style scoring freely against the slightly lacklustre Russians. It was no surprise that the home side took a 2-0 lead which confirmed their top spot and effectively ended the Russian’s hopes of making the next stage. Italian Head Coach, Marco Bonitta, opted to rest his starting six for the remainder of the match which had an immediate impact on the flow of play. With nothing to lose the Russians played with more freedom and gradually began to dominate. They won set three very comfortably, 25-12, and it looked as if the Italian’s perfect record was under threat. The crowd was not surprisingly a little more subdued. Bonitta stuck with his plan and kept his second string on court. This trust seemed to give the home players greater belief and gradually they fought their way back into the match. The home crowd roared their support and this gave Italy the much needed boost to push on and take the set 25-23.

And so the semi-finals were set…Brazil v USA and Italy v China. Simply mouthwatering prospects.

Brazil v USA was a feisty encounter with a number of dubious calls (unchallenged by video) going against the Olympic Champions. On two different occasions the Brazilian Head Coach, Roberto Guimares, entered the court to remonstrate decisions and went unpunished. This lack of self-control (and sanction from the officials) crept into the players’ behaviour and they lost their discipline. In contrast, the USA, under the guidance of volleyball legend Karch Kiraly, played a very astute tactical game by taking out the Brazilian threat in the middle and closing down the outside options with some solid blocking and defence. The result was a relatively comfortable first set win followed up by a nail biting second which the USA eventually won 29-27. The Brazilians never really recovered their composure after that and while they continued to strive to re-establish the flowing, powerful play that had been in evidence in previous matches they never quite hit the heights and the USA held on to book their place in the Final with a 25-20 final set score.

You can imagine the atmosphere in the crowd as soon as the first semi-final was finished and the expectation began to build for the next appetiser! The start was set back by 45 minutes to allow for live TV coverage. That only served to further stir the emotion in the hall as everywhere you looked there was a sea of green, white and red painted faces. By the time the warm-up was over and all the formalities were completed the noise was palpable! Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Chinese players they were simply there as supporting cast. They played with a speed and energy that rocked the hosts and raced to an early lead in set one. This quietened the crowd somewhat especially as it became evident that the Italians were struggling to attack with any great effect. There was little for the crowd to cheer. While Italy stayed in touch for most of the set they never managed to cause a real threat. In contrast, 18 year old offsetter, Ting Tzu, was unstoppable especially through the pipe channel. China took sets one and two (25-21, 25-20) and it looked as though Italy were down and out. Bonitta changed his line up and started with 21 year old Valentina Diouf in place of Carolina Costegrande. Standing at 2 metres 2 centimetres Diouf may have lacked technical finesse but she powered through the Chinese defence and acted as the catalyst for an Italian revival both on and off the court. Italy took set three 25-20 to keep hopes of a Final place alive. Set four was a real battle but in the end China had more attack options than the tiring Italians. So much hope was built around Diouf’s performance that there was an inevitability that she would gradually succumb to the pressure. China held on to win a thrilling fourth set 30-28 to book their place in the Final against the USA. Italy were left to reflect on the fact that age had probably played a big factor in their inability to match their younger and more energetic opponents (the Italians had the highest average age [35 years] of all six countries).

Sunday 12 October would be the final chapter in what had been an enthralling event. The thirty two countries that started out back in late September had been whittled down to two. But before that we had the matter of a bronze medal match between Brazil and Italy. For many, including myself, these two teams had looked as though they would be the ones left to battle it out for the World crown, but it wasn’t to be. For Italy, it was the last chance to give the home crowd something to cheer about as repayment for their magnificent support throughout the tournament. When Brazil took a 2-0 set lead it certainly didn’t look that way. But Italy demonstrated their never-say-die attitude that had been a feature of their play and fought back to 2-2. However, the cost was too much and they had little left in set five as Brazil cruised to a 15-7 set win and the bronze medal. It will be interesting to see if the Italian squad loses some of its older players in advance of qualification for the 2016 Olympics. Brazil will, I’m sure, be determined to re-establish themselves as number one by the time Rio comes along.

One of the strong characteristics of the USA team throughout the Finals was their very clear tactical strength. While Karch Kiraly was the obvious front man it was fascinating to watch his staff, both on the bench and off court, in constant communication through radio microphone. At times Kiraly spent more time looking at his staff in the technical area of the arena than he did at the court itself. It was most certainly a coaching ‘team’. It was this tactical tightness that went a long way to helping the USA overcome China 3-1 to win the gold medal. Ting Zhu, who had ripped Brazil apart in the semi-finals, was restricted to a handful of points. The USA block and defence smothered the Chinese attacking threat. In contrast the Americans, and especially outside hitter Kimberley Hill, scored with precision. It was, in many ways, a tactical masterclass. Admittedly, the Chinese possibly showed signs of fatigue as a result of their efforts over the past five days but they will learn a huge amount from their campaign. There is no doubt that they will only become stronger and could be a big threat to Brazil’s Olympic title by the time Rio comes around.

All that remained was for the celebratory glitter to be fired into the air as the three medal winning countries stepped up onto the rostrum and the USA held aloft the Women’s World Championship trophy. The previous five days had been a celebration about all that is great and exciting in our sport. It was an inspiration to me as a Coach to have been in a position to observe this fantastic show and to reflect on what I could personally learn and take back to help further develop the SWNTP.

My thanks go the Coaches Commission in particular and the Association in general for their financial support in helping me to attend the event. I am very grateful for the encouragement and support that the Commission and the Association have given to me personally and to the SWNTP as we strive to help raise the standard of the women’s game in Scotland. I am certain that my time in Milan will enable me to continue to work with the players and staff as we prepare for the CEV Small Countries Division Final next summer.

And so all that remains to say is ‘Grazie mille Milano!’

That was Volleyball!

Craig Faill
Head Coach
Scotland Senior Women’s Programme
28 October 2014