The players of the winning team of Russia dance during the victory ceremony for the Women's Volleyball European Championships in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Source: AP
Russian volleyball is already accustomed to victories: Take last year's Olympic men’s team, or the Olympic women's team, who won two consecutive world championships in 2006 and 2010. Still, the triumph in Berlin deserves to be called an extraordinary event.
The Russian women's team had not seen any European Championship gold medals for 12 long years. Hardly anyone would be surprised if they had failed to win one this time around. The team’s image did not fit the classic image of a champion team. After the London Olympics, the Russian team had been radically reformed. Under coach Yuri Marichev’s guidance, the team that went to Germany was made up mainly of very young players, without the icons who had brought gold home from the world championships—Yekaterina Famova and Lyubov Sokolova.
Many of the current women's volleyball players had not even dreamed of a place in the Russian Super League’s club a couple of years ago. Now, the young team is marching on the championship grid, as if it had been preparing for its German performance for a dozen of seasons. The performance turned out to be phenomenal: The group won three games out of three and lost two sets. The Turkish team, which was aiming for the podium, was swept off their path in the quarterfinals; the Serbians were defeated without scoring a point in the semi-final.
The sweetest was in store for the final, in which the Russian team had to meet with the German hostesses of championship, who were fairly well-prepared to do wonders and buoyed by the fervor of the audience’s love.
Coach Marichev was not afraid of the pressure. Before the game, he anticipated a serious problem that was purely about the game—the problem of reception. At the morning training session, he even asked his volleyball players to simulate a complicated serve of the of German women players, who had just recently created difficulties for the Russian team at the Grand Prix’s preliminary stage. "I wasn’t worried about the other elements,” said the Russian coach. The reception did not work out: All the elements were going well, but not the reception.
This, however, did not prevent the Russian women from leading in the starting set, at the end of which they saved the increasing, then diminishing tiny gap, thanks to Natalia Obmochaeva’s strikes. Yet the fans in the Max Schmeling Halle arena stood behind their players: They were already in the lead in the next game, but the Russians were catching up. During timeouts, it was no longer Giovanni Guidetti, the German national team’s coach, but Yuri Marichev straining his vocal cords, demanding accuracy, reliability and good technique. The Russian team was only a little bit behind the Germans.
The Russian team had to win the third set at any cost—and they did it. Running on adjacent tracks without a more-or-less solid gap lasted until the score was 24:23, after which Yekaterina Pankova, the link woman, tightly blocked Heike Beyer. "Three blocks per game: This is probably my record," she said, laughing as she looked at the paper with the statistics summary for the match.
After the third game, it was as though the German engine was deprived of fuel. Margareta Kozuch, its key gear, admitted that she and her partners felt absolutely helpless in the fourth set: "We could neither catch an attack by blocking it, nor hit the ball on defense. We could do nothing…”
The enlivened audience was still counting passes during the German combinations, in anticipation of points. They just managed a few points, but the Russian game’s superiority finally became superiority in numbers—a vast superiority, one that deprived the hostesses of any prospects of standing under a shower of confetti and streamers.
Tatiana Kosheleva, who received a prize for being the best volleyball player of the championship, said that the secret of the Russian team’s success is in their relationships: "I do not believe it, but, during the whole time, I have not heard a word of reproach!"
From Giovanni Guidetti’s point of view, everything was actually very simple. He did not make himself a victim of circumstances. “We were really outperformed by the Russian team—especially in the attack. Out of 10 matches against them, we were only capable of winning one. I was hoping that the final would be the most unique, but it became one of nine,” said Guidetti. “Believe me: The Russians were playing on a completely different level than all the rest of the players in the tournament.”
First published in Russian in Kommersant.
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