Vienna, Austria. The head coach of Team Austria, Radovan Gacic, feels like his players may spring a surprise at next week’s CEV EuroVolley 2021 Men qualifier in Israel, edging even Bulgaria, the red-hot favourites of the tournament coming up soon in Hadera.
On Friday, the Austrians completed their preparations with one last day of training at the VIVA Sports Centre in Steinbrunn before travelling to Israel on Saturday. They will be playing hosts Israel as well as Bulgaria twice in a double round robin tournament.
Bulgaria are the heavy favourites of the competition in Hadera, with an impressive resume including medals from the Olympics, World and European Championships – which make the Balkan country a true Volleyball powerhouse. Bulgaria achieved their best result in international competition at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, where they only lost to the Soviet Union in the gold medal match. Moreover, Bulgaria have been a regular competitor in the FIVB World League / Volleyball Nations League for 20 years and currently sit in tenth place in the latest European Ranking, with Austria and Israel further down in 25th and 28th place, respectively.
“Bulgaria has been an absolute top volleyball nation for decades, and not only in Europe, but worldwide as well,” Gacic emphasises. “In their last participation in the European Championship two years ago, they finished 11th only but now they are very well positioned again. All players that head coach Silvano Prandi has called in play at the highest level. Tsvetan Sokolov from Dinamo MOSCOW is without a doubt one of the best opposite hitters in the world, but they are great in the other positions as well. Their players compete in the best national leagues in the world. That says everything about the quality of this team,” Gacic adds, acknowledging Bulgaria’s status of pre-favourite. “However, I am convinced that we can surprise even such a strong team. Because my team also has its strengths.”
Austria will start the EuroVolley qualifier in Hadera playing the home team. Israel does not have the same level of success as the group favourites from Bulgaria. The last European Championship participation was 50 years ago. “The majority of the players come from the Israeli league, which is now at a good level,” explains Gacic. “There is no such thing as a superstar like for Bulgaria but Israel can rely on internationally experienced players like Alexander Shafranovich, who was already under contract with the best clubs in Greece and Germany. They work very well as a team, which is also their greatest strength, and as hosts they for sure want to cause a surprise. However, I still think we are the better team. In any case, it will be an extremely interesting tournament,” Gacic concludes.
Gernot Leitner, President of the Austrian Volleyball Federation (ÖVV): “Due to the coronavirus crisis, qualifying for the European Championship is just as challenging as the entire situation in sport. A qualification that takes place on six consecutive days is a huge burden. Of course, we have great hope that we will make it to the finals again after doing so in 2019. The team did a good job in preparation. I hope that it is in perfect shape.”
Only the tournament winners will secure their participation in EuroVolley 2021, which Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Finland will be co-hosting later this year. The runners-up will have to wait for completion of all remaining pools in May to know their fate in the competition.