Iran volleyball team makes great strides under coach Julio Velasco, but Argentine believes defending their Asian Championship title will be the real test of the team’s progress, writes Ahmed Rizvi.
Julio Velasco sees bright future for Iran volleyball team
DUBAI // When Julio Velasco arrived in Tehran to take over the reins of Iran’s national volleyball team in 2011, Team Melli had just started making its mark on the Asian stage.
They had finished runners-up to Japan at the 2009 Asian Championships – their best performance in 13 appearances.
A year earlier, they had won the Asian Cup and successfully defended their title in 2010. That same year, they took the silver at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, and matched their best performance at the World Championships by finishing 19th.
Interest in the sport was growing at home and administrators were keen to build on their success. And in Velasco, they found a man to take the team to the next level.
The Argentine, a volleyball Hall of Famer, is one of the most reputed coaches around. In the 1990s, he won five World League titles with the Italy men’s team, two World Championships, three European Championships, a World Cup and World Grand Champions Cup, and a silver at the 1996 Olympics.
“When I first arrived in Iran, I used to have four training sessions each day, with different national teams, because my assistant was still working for the Argentina Under-23 team,” Velasco said.
That commitment paid immediate dividends. Iran won the Asian Championships for the first time, at home in 2011, beating China in the final. That win got them a ticket to the 2011 World Cup, where they finished ninth, the best finish by a team from outside the Americas and Europe.
Earlier this year, they made their first appearance at the World League and finished a respectable ninth in the 18-nation competition, defeating the likes of Serbia, Italy, Germany and Cuba in their home matches.
Now they are in Dubai to defend their Asian Championship crown and have cruised through their first three matches without dropping a set, including a 25-16, 25-17, 25-20 win over archrival Iraq in a round-of-16-match on Tuesday.
Velasco is happy with the performance of his team, but warns of tougher tests ahead.
“This is the first time that Iran are playing as favourites,” he said. “So this pressure is something new for the players. That’s why we have to show a lot of concentration. It is easier to play when you have nothing to lose, like in the World League.
“If we win in the World League, we are heroes; if we lose, no problem. Here it is different. We must win because everybody expects us to win. So it is a new role for the team, but it is something that we need to get used to.”
Getting used to their position as Asia’s best and keeping that position, according to Velasco, will eventually determine how far Iran have progressed under his tenure.
The Argentine, however, is optimistic looking at the enthusiasm and structure for the sport in Iran.
“Volleyball is very important in Iran,” Velasco said. “We have a lot of clubs, a lot of players and a really good league. We have good junior and youth teams. Yesterday, we won the Islamic Games. We have also qualified for the Under 23 World Championships.
“So it is a sport that is growing in Iran. What we need [to do now] is to build up a group at a high level. We have a lot of good players, but to be at a high level is another thing. You need to have a small, core group with very, very good quality.
“I think we can do that, but we need to have confidence. We also need to make sure we stay humble. We should not start thinking, ‘Ah, we are the best’. That would be a problem. We need to work a lot because it is not easy to stay at the top.
“OK, we have made improvements, but to stay at the top is another thing and that’s why it is so important to win this tournament, because it is never easy to repeat a victory. If we [retain the title], it means one more step in the right direction, a step forward in this process.”
UAE come up short against Lebanon and will miss final eight
DUBAI // Lebanon wrecked the UAE’s hopes of reaching the last eight of the Asian Championships with a straight-sets win over the hosts on Tuesday night.
The UAE, ranked No 74 in the world, were never really in the game, losing 25-15, 25-16, 28-26 to a team ranked 48 places below them in the world rankings.
The hosts, who beat Uzbekistan 3-1 in their preliminary group game, now have the difficult task of beating Thailand in their second round-of-16 play-off to make it to the event’s knockout stage.
“I was surprised by the UAE’s performance today,” said Moufid Sherit, the Lebanon coach, whose team is ranked 122nd.
“The last time we played against them, they were a lot better. Having said that, I believe my team did a great job – both in attack and defence. The setters were really good and we made sure we did not give many opportunities to the UAE.”
In the other matches from Tuesday, defending champions Iran beat their neighbours Iraq 25-16, 25-17, 25-20, while the last edition’s runners-up China also recorded a straight sets win over Sri Lanka, 25-14, 25-17, 25-18.
Four-time Asian champions South Korea faced a stiff resistance from Kazakhstan, but still managed to win 29-27, 25-20, 25-23.
At the Al Nasr Stadium, India overcame a spirited Australian rally to hang on for a 25-23, 26-24, 23-25, 23-25, 15-12 victory.
Thailand were comfortable 25-15, 25-19, 25-21 winners over Uzbekistan and Bahrain beat Qatar 25-23, 28-26, 25-22.