The Olympic spirit will certainly be present in what is sure to be a sold-out Maracanãzinho in Rio de Janeiro, as six giants of the volleyball world go head to head at the test event for the 2016 summer games. The tournament features four teams that already know what it takes to win the FIVB World League: record winners Brazil (9 titles), Italy (8), defending champions the USA (2) and world champions Poland (1). They are joined by two former medal winners in Serbia (4x silver, 3x bronze) and France (1x silver). The hot favourites to pick up the million dollar jackpot are without doubt the hosts and record winners Brazil, who have their sights set firmly on a historic tenth title, five years after their last triumph.
The statistics do not necessarily favour the hosts. Brazil has already staged the final round four times, but has only gone on to clinch the title once, in Sao Paulo in 1993. The last two final rounds to be held in Rio de Janeiro yielded nothing more than one second (1995) and one fourth place (2008). The Brazilians have had to settle for second place in three of the four competitions since their latest triumph in 2010. The hosts’ dress rehearsal did not go entirely to plan either, with Brazil suffering a 2-3 defeat at home to Italy in the final preliminary round match. “We need to improve our game for the finals. We will come back stronger,” promised Brazil’s setter Bruno Rezende.
However, his team finds itself in what looks like the stronger of the groups in the first round. Not least as they face the USA in a re-run of last year’s final. “I think the chances of us reaching the title match again are high if we play how we want to and know we can play. I think we have a better team than last year,” said US star Sander, full of confidence. However, Brazil cannot afford to underestimate their other opponent in the preliminary round – Group 2 winners France.
France boast a flawless record in this year’s FIVB World League: played 14, won 14. Having defeated hosts Bulgaria 3-0 in the Group 2 Final, the French team set off on the long journey from Varna to Rio de Janeiro brimming with confidence. “In Rio, the goal is clear: the podium. The problem will be the recovery from the long journey when we play on the first day against Brazil, whilst others have had a relaxing weekend,” said coach Laurent Tillie. Captain Benjamin Toniutti added: “In Rio, we will be in the most difficult group with the United States and Brazil. It will be very difficult, but we go there without pressure.”
There is also great anticipation surrounding the evenly-matched second group in the first round. Strong displays in the preliminary round, with four wins against Olympic champions Russia and victory over the USA, make reigning world champions Poland the slight favourites. Stephane Antiga, head coach of Poland: “The qualification for the Final Six is a big success. But we want to try to achieve more.”
Poland won the FIVB World League in 2012. Meanwhile, Italy have been waiting a remarkable 15 years for their eighth title, having recently finished third two years in a row.
Coach Mauro Berruto is hoping for a similar performance to the one in their 3-2 victory over Brazil in the final match of the preliminary round: “We managed to score with blocks in all sets and had a good fighting spirit. This is our real game. Now, in Rio, I want us to play as well as in this match.” However, Serbia is also a force to be reckoned with, having won three of four preliminary round matches against Italy.
The 26th staging of the FIVB World League has seen the competition expand once again. 32 teams - four more than in 2014 - battle for the title at the most prestigious annual event in the volleyball world, which this year spans a record ten weeks.