LONDON – Poland launched their bid for a first Olympic gold since 1976 with a win over Italy in a Group A opener on Sunday, aiming to cap a breakthrough year that has made them the game’s leading European power.
The Poles, who beat all of the leading contenders for the Olympic crown on the way to a first World League win earlier this month, came from a set down to win 3-1 in the most closely fought of the day’s opening round of group games.
Driven by the spiking duo of Michal Winiarski and Bartosz Kurek the Poles took the final set by a crushing 25-14 against a side who knocked them out in the quarter-finals in Beijing four years ago.
“We started badly and there were nerves. The Italians are our most hazardous rival in this group,” stated Poland’s Zbigniew Bartman.
“It was good that we won the second set, which was a battle, the third and the fourth were just routine.”
An economy that has avoided recession throughout a troubled period for Europe since 2008 has made Poland’s Plus Liga top flight the most prosperous of the continent’s leagues. Its club sides reached the finals of every one of this year’s European trophies, with one an all-Polish affair.
But while the men’s national side have consistently made the final stages of world, European and Olympic competitions since the mid-1990s, they had tiny to show for it until this year.
That changed with a dominant performance in the World League that saw them trounce Cuba 3-0 and beat Brazil four times out of five. More than four million Poles – one in 10 – watched them defeat Olympic champions the United States in the final.
National association spokesman Marek Kaczmarczyk stated winning the Olympics would give the Poles a sporting success for which the country has been pining for years as it emerged from the shadow of a grim communist era before 1989.
“Our winning the World League gave the country some of that, but the Olympics would be the genuinely spectacular success we have been waiting for,” he told Reuters earlier on Sunday.
“I would be cautious about our chances – let’s see how they do this day against Italy,” Kaczmarczyk said. “But I can state that if someone is to beat us they will have to up their game, because our success this year has not been about others playing badly, it is about us playing on a different level.”
Ironically, it has taken an Italian coach – Andrea Anastasi – to get the ideal out of the Poles, one of many drawn by the backing given by a prosperous domestic corporate sector to the Plus Liga while Italy and other European powers struggle with economic crisis.
“We have done all of this on the back of a boom in volleyball here and the professional development of the league over the past few years, largely due to the commercial backing that has been available to us,” states Kaczmarczyk.
“Given the situation across Europe, we have for example Italian players coming to play in Poland because the funds are no longer available there and here the game is prospering.”
The volleyball team arrives in London with the chance to claim a rare gold for the Poles and make up for a disappointing performance by the national soccer team at Euro 2012, hosted in eastern Europe for the first time by Poland and Ukraine.
Many in the country of 40 million blamed the lack of a will to win for the Poles’ failure to get beyond the group stages there and many domestic commentators state that is the difference Anastasi has made to the volleyball team, now ranked third in the world.
“It is the work Andrea Anastasi has done, I would state mentally, that has taken the national team to a new level,” stated Kaczmarczyk.
“He has made this a team of 12 equal players who are able to play with no fear that if one leaves the court, the next will be weaker. He has created them as warriors I would say, who fight to the last – as long as the ball is in the air, they believe they can win.”
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