DUBAI // One look into the stands and the South Korean players must have felt like they were playing the final of the Asian Volleyball Championships in Tehran.
Thousands of Iranians packed the stands at the Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex, creating more din than the music blaring over the PA system. It was, without a doubt, the biggest crowd to visit the magnificent complex yet.
The stands and ground – a temporary lid over the facility’s 50-metre swimming pool – literally trembled from the roars of “Iran, Iraaan”. And then you had the drums and Mexican waves to add to the intimidating atmosphere.
The South Koreans refused to be cowed, though, winning the opening two points of the match and racing to a fast lead. But the deafening boos and whistles that greeted those points, and their serves, had consequences.
Iran took the first set 25-19 and then cruised through the next two, 25-22 and 25-19, to defend the title they had claimed for the first time, at home, in 2011.
It felt like the roar that followed the final point would threaten to blow the roof off the complex.
The Iranian coach, Julio Velasco, could barely conceal his emotions, screaming as he sank to his knees. The players were equally ecstatic, thumping their chests as they raced toward their fans.
“It’s a very big win, because defending a title is never easy,” said Velasco, who won two consecutive World Championships with the Italian men’s team in 1990 and 1994. “And we have won 3-0. It’s incredible. This group of players is extraordinary.
“This is one of the teams closest to my heart, along with the Italian national team [of the 1990s]. They have worked so hard and listened to everything I have said. They accepted me with an open mind and the change is clear.
“They have made a great effort and, like I keep saying in Iran, the country must be proud of this group of players.”
The massive turnout on Sunday was clear evidence of that.
The Iranian fans started arriving at the stadium hours before the final, when Australia and Thailand were still on the court, playing for fifth place. They waited patiently as China squared off against Japan in the third-place play-off, applauding both teams sportingly.
Of course, most of them must have been wishing for a China win after the 2011 runners-up had raced to a lead by winning the first two sets 25-18, 25-22. The reasons were obvious: they wanted their team to take the centre stage as early as possible.
However, Japan, the seven-time Asian champions who were drubbed 3-0 by Iran in the semis, made sure the fans had to wait a bit longer as they took the third set 25-22, but China obliged the Iranian fans by winning the fourth set 25-20.
“There are Iranians everywhere,” said Velasco, thanking the fans. “Even when we play in Italy, they were a lot of Iranians.
“These people love volleyball, love this team and we love them. You can only imagine what it means playing in Tehran.”