x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Small steps for Iran on big stage

Win over Brazil could take them to World League semi-finals, but Olympics is the priority.

Iran, in white, were defeated by Russia 3-2 in their opening match at the FIVB World League at Mandela Forum in Florence, Italy. Paolo Bruno / Getty Images
Iran, in white, were defeated by Russia 3-2 in their opening match at the FIVB World League at Mandela Forum in Florence, Italy. Paolo Bruno / Getty Images

Iran’s volleyball team may face an uphill battle in the World League’s final round this weekend, but their challenge is a mere step towards a medal at the 2016 Olympics.

The team, who are led by Serbian Slobodan Kovac, were surprise qualifiers from Pool A, ahead of nine-time winners of the competition Brazil and 2012 champions Poland, coming second after heavyweights Italy.

“We started the competition as an underdog – with Brazil, the No 1 seed, Italy, the third, and Poland, No 6, in our group,” Kovac said ahead of the tournament.

But in twin four-game series, Team Melli more than proved their talent, beating the Brazil and Poland sides twice, and losing twice.

The final round, which began in the Italian city of Florence, sees Iran in the same group as Russia, an invincible force in the past two years, and again against Brazil, who host the 2016 Olympics.

In their opener, Iran went down 3-2 to Russia but they can qualify for the semi-finals if they beat Brazil today. “It is possible,” Kovac said. “We must respect our opponents but should not be afraid of them. We have a big appetite and we will play our best game in Italy.”

Iran’s main stars are captain Mir Saeed Marouflakrani, 29, and Mohammad Mousavi, a 26 year old who is considered the best defender of the season so far. But passer Shahram Mahmoudi is not playing in the finals after spraining his left ankle.

Mousavi said Iran’s moment of triumph was beating Brazil and Poland. “We have gained a lot of confidence in the past year,” he said.

Iran’s volleyball federation sees the tournament as a stepping stone.

By appointing the decorated Argentine coach Julio Velasco in 2011, it brought up a generation of talents and set eyes on glory by winning a medal in Brazil in 2016.

“Everything has been planned,” Mahmoudi said of the strategy.

Velasco’s Iran won two Asian championships in 2011 and 2013, and participated in the 2013 World League, clinching victories against Cuba, Italy, Serbia and Germany.

He left in February to coach his home country, which failed to qualify for the final round.

After Florence, the Iranian outfit will play in the World Championship in Poland, from August 30 to September 21, and then the Asian Games from September 19 to October 4 in South Korea.

But to improve further, Iran’s players must gain international experience, according to Kovac.

In European clubs, for example, he said, “they will have to fight for a starting place, whereas in Iran their spot is guaranteed”.

Mousavi could be the first to move abroad, with interest from Turkey’s Fenerbahce and Italy’s Modena.

Marouflakrani is considering an offer from a club in Ankara, while Milad Ebadipour has been approached by Verona.

Thanks to its rise to world-stage competitions, interest in volleyball has rapidly grown in Iran in recent years and Kovac suggests it may become the No 1 sport in the Islamic republic, overtaking football.

“It’s now difficult to get coffee in a shopping centre because so many people approach you and want to take photos, or just say hello,” he said.