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29 Jun 2015
IOC News

Hard working Iranians taking strides towards Rio

The history of volleyball in Iran dates back to the early 1920s when it gained popularity as a college sport. However, it was not until the 1950s that the Iranian men’s national team made its competitive debut. And despite the sport’s steady increase in popularity during the subsequent decades, it is only relatively recently that the country has made its mark on the international volleyball map.

While the Iranians have yet to qualify for an Olympic Games, their ascent over the last few years has been remarkable. After a 20-year absence, they reached the World Cup in 2011, and have featured at the last two world championships. They also finished fourth at the 2013 Grand Champions Cup, ahead of established teams such as the USA and Japan.

In 2013, the men’s team was crowned Asian champions for the second time, having first won the title in 2011. However, the biggest stride forward has come since the appointment in March 2014 of Serbian head coach Slobodan Kovač – an Olympic bronze medallist with Yugoslavia at Atlanta 1996.

And in June 2015, they produced one of their most impressive displays to date, as they took on the reigning world champions, the USA, in a World League double-header in the Iranian capital.

The encounters, which were played in front of 12,000 passionate spectators in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, provided the Iranians with an ideal opportunity to measure their recent progress, but in the build-up, Kovač was keen to temper expectations, having seen his team lose twice to the Americans in Los Angeles a month earlier. “USA is currently the best team in the world,” Kovač, told a news conference before the first game in Tehran on 19 June. “Those who think we can defeat the USA do not have a good understanding of volleyball.”

In fact, his team produced one of the shock results of recent times, comprehensively beating the Americans 3-0, and then repeating the feat two days later, prompting the US coach, John Speraw, to concede that they had been thoroughly outclassed. “They outplayed us in every facet of the game: block, defence, passing, serving, and offense,” Speraw reflected afterwards.

According to the team’s fitness coach, Italian Carlo Sati, the results were in large measure down to sheer hard work.

“We did five fantastic weeks of physical preparation for the Iran-US matches. Each week we had nine training sessions of 2-3 hours, working with heavy weights in the mornings,” explained Sati.

The Iranians’ work ethic, speed and tactical acumen in the two matches against the Americans left Sati purring with pride: “In volleyball when they talk about the physical condition, they speak so much about the height of the players and their muscularity. Iranian players for sure weren’t as tall as the American players, as US coach John Speraw also pointed out, but we are faster and my players jump almost one metre.”

“Nobody expected this win,” he added. “The work we have done last year and this year is paying off.”

Iran’s landmark victories against the world champions, which gave rise to rapturous celebrations among the country’s many volleyball fans, now provide the national team with a terrific platform for Rio 2016, where they can now regard themselves as genuine prospects for qualification and perhaps even a medal.

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