'It’s harder to win the Champions League, but this competition has a status.' Zenit goes to club world championship

The tournament doesn’t have León’s new team, and this is wrong

'It’s harder to win the Champions League, but this competition has a status.' Zenit goes to club world championship
Photo: Maksim Platonov

A year ago, Zenit-Kazan solved the problem of the trophy it couldn't win for long. Vladimir Alekno's players became club world champions without any problems – in the semi-final and the final, their opponents couldn't win even a set. This year, the Kazan players are again a hot favourite of the tournament in Poland, but there are some nuances. Realnoe Vremya tells how organisers wanted to cheat León & Co, the Italians' motivation and surprised the Russians are preparing.

World volleyball leaders: four years in time

First, some backstory of the current tournament. According to the organisers' idea, the International Volleyball Federation, a four-year contract with a country to hold the Club World Championship has been signed since 2009. If some mistakes in organisation are made during the first year, they can be corrected the next year. In addition, the audience and participants get used to a certain location and know what to expect beforehand. So the first four tournaments (2009-2012) were in Doha, Qatar, and one team – Italian Trentino – won them all.

The Club World Championship was used as a site to test new tendencies in world volleyball. So the approval of video challenges came in handy. But the experiment when the first attack in each play was to start compulsorily from the back line was recognised unsuccessful.

There was small progress in competition in the tournament during the next four years when it was in Brazil (2013-2016). After the host's victory in the first year, Belogorie showed off the next season. The club from Belgorod was the first Russian club to win this tournament. But the hosts dominated again in the next two years – Zenit-Kazan lost to Sada Cruzeiro in the final two years in a row. Then many players of the Kazan club mentioned the unusual South American climate.

A contract with Poland was signed in 2017, which promised glowing prospects for the tournament. In fact, one year ago we saw semi-empty stands and as little intrigue as possible: Zenit-Kazan too easily won the trophy. Might it be its rivals' problems, but the Champions League Final Four in Kazan this May was much better in terms of organisation and game than what we saw in the club championship a year ago.

One year ago we saw semi-empty stands and as little intrigue as possible: Zenit-Kazan too easily won the trophy. Photo: zenit-kazan.com

World championship among the best, those who've been invited

This year's tournament's organisation began to raise questions when cities were just chosen. Radom and Rzeszów were chosen first to host the group stage (from 26 to 29 November). But then it was decided to shift the matches of Group A to Płock. Group B will remain in Rzeszów. And the final will be held in Częstochowa (1-2 December). It should be noted last year the organisers made a mistake in ticket pricing – they were too expensive even for the Polish for whom volleyball is a sports cult.

Next, the participants. Apart from the Kazan club, Fakel from Novy Urengoy (see below why this club), Civitanova from Italy and Polish Skra from Bełchatów (it takes two hours to get to Płock from this city, 171 km) in Group A. Brazilian Cruzeiro, Italian Trentino, Polish Resovia and Ardakan from Iran will perform in Group B. The main question a person who knows something about world volleyball will ask when studying the list of teams is the following: where is Perugia with Wilfredo León? It's not here. The Italians were offered to buy a seat in the world championship for much money. Naturally, the officials of the club who spent enough on the contract with the best volleyball player in the world were indignant. Another problem is that not all teams were offered the same price for participation. It's clear, the tournament is commercial. In case of success, Perugia would receive all costs back, but there is no guarantee. And the attitude itself raises questions. Later, according to the club's owner Gino Sirci, the organisers made attempts to agree by reducing the price but got a firm denial. So the potentially best club in the world hasn't arrived in the club world championship. And the tournament's status has decreased, to put it mildly.

Civitanova was close to make a sensation and win the Champions League in Kazan. Photo: zenit-kazan.com

Strong group for Zenit

It's unlikely Zenit-Kazan cares about this Polish-Italian infighting. Defending the title is the only goal of the reigning champion. The rivals and the rules are the next issue. But knowing Vladimir Alekno and his team's ambitions, we think the Kazan players wouldn't mind meeting with León & Co right now.

In any case, Zenit got a tough group. Fakel hasn't had a defeat in the Championship of Russia this season. Civitanova was close to make a sensation and win the Champions League in Kazan. Only that famous León factor played a key role in the final – who has the Cuban is the winner. Giampaolo Medei's players became angrier and stronger than the last season when they lost five finals at once (the Championship, the Cup, the Supercup, the Club World Championship and the Champions League). Two of the finals were lost to the Kazan club.

Finally, Skra. Ambitious Italian coach Roberto Piazza who repeatedly played against Russian clubs in Eurocups chairs the Polish. Mariusz Wlazły still holds the 2014 World Championship MVP title. This season, Skra is playing as fast volleyball as possible. Considering world volleyball tendencies and the Polish's victory in the world championship among national teams, it will be interesting to look at them in the match with physically strong Zenit even not from a perspective of the result but some ideological opposition. Even if Alekno has said many times that the style of the Kazan players has changed after Ngapeth came.

Not a top player but with certain potential Artur Udris from Belarus was purchased as an opposite hitter. The other leaders of the club stay out. Photo: fakelvolley.ru

What does Fakel have to do here?

As it was said, the tournament's organisers don't make the list of participants of the club world championship according to a sports principle. Commerce prevails. Anyway, it's quite hard to explain why the sixth team of the penultimate Championship of Russia was invited. Let's find out. Firstly, it's obvious Fakel has money this season. A couple of years ago, the club from Novy Urengoy had financial problems, but they were quite quickly solved. Not cheap American player Erik Shoji was invited as a libero this year. Not a top player but with certain potential Artur Udris from Belarus was purchased as an opposite hitter. The other leaders of the club stay out: it's, first of all, setter Igor Kolodinsky and outside hitters of the national team of Russia Dmitry Volkov and Yegor Klyuka. Yakovlev and Ananyev successfully substituted same Likhoshyorstov and Vlasov in block.

Secondly, support of the Russian Volleyball Federation. It stopped being a secret a long time ago that the RVF is interested in developing Fakel, while Volley Service agency represents most players' interests. Though it's obvious this factor isn't decisive. The federation also closely cooperates with Zenit from Petersburg that could easily be a candidate to go on a trip to Poland if desired. But it seems that the Petersburg club decided not to rush and calmly make a debut in the Champions League. The club world championship won't get away from the Petersburg players in the future if they perform well.

The third moment seems to be principal. The organisers themselves insisted on inviting Fakel. It's no secret that Volkov and Klyuka are very popular in Poland, and their every visit is an occasion for fans. The commercial potential of the tournament increases together with the public's favourite's arrival. But, again, people love León more, but his team wasn't invited. The club from Novy Urengoy likely to put some effort together with the federation on time when it became known Perugia wouldn't certainly go. Now Fakel ranks second in the Championship of Russia having won six out of six matches. But it's a question if it deserved a trip to the Club World Championship more than the same Dynamo, which became a bronze medallist last season.

Before the tournament began, Fakel's head coach Camillo Placì claimed they were glad to have been invited to this dance. And they hoped to dance till the end. He said they were very enthusiastic before the tournament.

A lot of attention at Zenit will clearly be paid to Earvin Ngapeth. Photo: Maksim Platonov

World championship among individuals

Without León and Perugia, this seems to suggest that the winner team will unlikely be objectively the best in the world. This is why fans can relax and just watch cool players, real individuals who made their name in world volleyball. And there will be many individuals in the tournament. So setter Bruno, outside hitter Yoandry Leal and blocker who began the season as an opposite hitter Robertlandy Simón (both are Cubans) became the new players of Civitanova in the summer. Another Cuban Osmani Juantorena and Bulgarian Tsevan Sokolov remained in the team. Juantorena became the best player in the last club world championship. By the way, once he refused to come to Kazan and made space for Matthew Anderson.

A lot of attention at Zenit will clearly be paid to Earvin Ngapeth. Captain Aleksandr Butko hasn't fully recovered after an injury, much a lot can be expected from him in decisive matches. Maksim Mikhailov has gained a crazy pace.

The Kazan club's head coach expressed such an opinion at the press conference before the tournament:

''In my opinion, it's a bit harder to win the Champions League. There is more tension there. But the club world championship attracts due to its status – many clubs want to be called the strongest club in the world.''

By Andrey Lopata

Kazan-Zenit's match days and play-offs:

  • 26 November, Monday
  • 22.30* Zenit-Kazan — Fakel
  • 27 November, Tuesday
  • 19.30 Civitanova — Zenit-Kazan
  • 29 November, Thursday
  • 22.30 Skra — Zenit-Kazan
  • 1 December, Saturday
  • 19.30, 22.30 Semi-finals
  • 2 December, Sunday
  • 19.30 3rd place match
  • 22.30 Final

    *Moscow time