|I bought a standing room ticket to watch the FIVB World League at the nearby Sports Palace last night. Having seen world-class opera, theatre, music and art so far on the trip, I can now add world-class sports. The World League is comprised of the top 16 qualifying men's teams from around the world, who play in four first-round pools; the winner and runner-up in each pool go on to the round of eight, then to a semi-final round and on to the final. It's the biggest volleyball competition in the world, alongside the Olympics.
Bulgaria is currently ranked 7 in the world, so I knew Japan would have a tough time coming to Varna. As one might expect, the Japanese are much smaller than their studly Slavic counterparts, but they played with an athleticism and creativity that was impressive to watch. They hung tough, finally falling 3-2, 15-10 in the final game. Their number 17, Koshikawa, had by far the most dangerous serve, a swerving bullet which confused the Bulgarian libero.
Throughout the match the crowd was noisy, partisan and intensely involved. The Sports Palace holds only 5500 people and few of them were of the corporate variety which so blights North American sports with their passive inattentiveness. (North American sports could learn from the qualification/relegation system in Europe, too, but that’s another story.) There were lots of women, little kids, teenagers, and middle-aged guys distorting the Bulgarian flags printed on their T-shirts.
Volleyball is an odd sport in some ways. For one thing, the team serving is most often at a disadvantage trying to win the point, because the returning team usually gets the first spike opportunity. Another odd aspect is the pattern of substitutions: when a team wins serve they quickly substitute a tall, oak-like player on the front line and take out their libero, or setter. As soon as they lose serve, back comes the smaller player.
The rhythm of volleyball is much like grass court tennis. There are short, explosive bursts of breath-taking athletic virtuosity followed by a lot of standing around. It’s unusual at the world-level when a rally extends beyond four possessions, but when it does, it brings the crowd to its feet.
The referee enjoys deity-like status in volleyball; extended whining by athletes is not tolerated. That’s also unusual in my experience with professional sports. The referee made three questionable calls last night—one of which could have resulted in an early loss for the Japanese—but the players, beyond extending their arms in a pleading motion, quickly fell into line. A spectator has to love that.
All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening spent chanting with the Bulgarians and cheering on the underdog Japanese. I walked out into the breezy, early evening sunshine with the rest of the crowd buzzing happily. Bulgaria doesn’t get all that many chances to shine in widely-shared world sports, but in volleyball they punch above their weight. Their fans walked out feeling just a bit taller.