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The Warsaw Voice » Society » September 30, 2009
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Volleyball Victory
September 30, 2009 By Witold Żygulski   
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Nationwide euphoria erupted after the Polish men's volleyball team unexpectedly won the European championships for the first time in Izmir, Turkey Sept. 13.

Almost 7 million fans watched the team's final match with France. Before the tournament, few experts believed the Polish team, led by Argentine coach Daniel Castellani, would be successful in the tournament because the team had lost three of its key players due to injuries. As a result, the lineup was experimental, with a few experienced players and a group of young ambitious players just beginning their careers in the national team.

After the tournament, Castellani admitted that he had only dreamed that his boys would reach the semifinals. Meanwhile, the Poles proved to be the tournament's strongest team.

They smoothly sailed through the first three-match phase of the championships. First, they beat France 3-1, then defeated Germany with the same score-despite the fact that the German team was led by former Poland coach Raul Lozano; finally, in the last match of the round, Poland beat Turkey 3-0 and advanced to the medal round of the tournament.

The match with defending champions Spain was a closely-fought encounter. The scales tipped in Poland's favor only in the fifth set, a tiebreak that the Poles won 17-15. In another game that had fans on tenterhooks, the Poles fought for entry to the semifinals, beating Slovakia in a tiebreak after an equally balanced match. The Polish players commented later that it had been their weakest and most nervous match in the tournament, one that they "decided to forget quickly." In the last group match, Poland defeated Greece 3-0 and advanced to the semifinals as number one in the group without losing a point.

In the semifinals, the Poles easily beat Bulgaria without losing a set. In the final, they again faced France, who had eliminated Russia after a grueling five-set encounter in the other semifinal.

The tournament was a major disappointment for Russia. In the match for bronze, they lost to Bulgaria and returned home without a European championship medal for the first time in years.

The Polish team won the first two sets against France but the French struck back and easily won the third set. In the fourth set both teams had the upper hand at alternating points but in the end the Poles prevailed, winning 26-24. After scoring the last point, the Polish players jumped for joy. They threw themselves into one another's arms, danced on the floor and received congratulations from fans.

Piotr Gruszka, 32, a seasoned player with the longest experience in the Polish team, was named the "most valuable player" of the tournament. In the final match, he scored a record 23 points.

Experts agree that Poland's success is largely due to the team's coach. The players have won 18 matches in a row under Castellani. They praised Castellani for creating an excellent atmosphere during training sessions and being able, despite injuries troubling key players, to build a young team in which players trust one another and do not lose heart even if they are losing, as was the case in the third set of the match with France.

Hundreds of fans gathered at Warsaw's Okęcie airport to welcome the gold medalists returning home Sept. 14. Several thousand people came to an official welcoming of the team in front of the Palace of Culture and Science in downtown Warsaw. Most of them were wearing T-shirts, hats and scarves in the national colors.

Sociologists said the national euphoria caused by the volleyball players was similar to that at the beginning of the decade when fans celebrated the successes of ski jumper Adam Małysz or in the 1970s and 1980s when the Polish national soccer team had its heyday.

In the 1970s, volleyball fans were equally enthusiastic when a team led by legendary coach Hubert Wagner became world champions in 1974 and followed up with a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976; at the time, the Polish players defeated the Soviet Union in a dramatic final.

Politicians also basked in the team's reflected glory. President Lech Kaczyński handed each player the Knight's Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order. Prime Minister Donald Tusk had breakfast with them. During the meeting, he received gifts from the players including a team T-shirt with his name on it and one of the medals brought by the team from Turkey. Castellani handed the medal to Tusk as a "representative of Polish fans."

The victory of the men's team raised hopes for a similar success from the women's team in the European championships starting Sept. 25. The tournament will be held in the southwestern Polish city of Wrocław.
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