Poland will be hopeful that they can end their 48-year Olympic Games medal drought next year after becoming European Volleyball champions for the second time by beating world champions Italy in straight sets in Rome on Saturday.
In 1976 Poland won gold by defeating the Soviet Union in the final at the Montreal Games which is their only Olympics medal in the event. Back then they were world champions, having also beaten the Soviet Union two years earlier.
Now, having finally won another European Championship 14 years after their previous victory in 2009, and ranked number one in the world, they begin Olympic qualification in China on Sept. 30 as one of the favourites.
Poland will be wary about complacency though. They went into the last two Olympics as world champions, only to bow out at the quarter-final stage on both occasions.
Nine of the 12-man squad at the last Olympics in Japan two years ago were on Poland’s 14-man squad which triumphed at the European Championship.
They include Wilfredo Leon, the fastest server in volleyball. Recognised as one of the best players in the world, the Cuban-born Leon scored a total of 13 points in Saturday’s win over Italy, including three aces.
One man who was not at the last Olympics is Norbert Huber. The middle blocker contributed 12 points in Poland’s win over Italy, with five aces and two blocks.
Huber missed last year’s World Championship through an Achilles tendon injury when Poland hosted the tournament but lost to Italy in the final.
He got his chance at the European Championship after Mateusz Bieniek was ruled out through injury and the 25-year-old grabbed it with both hands.
Poland rarely looked troubled in the final apart from a period at the start of the third set when Italy took an 8-5 lead. In the end, they wrapped up that thrilling set 25-23 for a 3-0 win helped by Huber’s ace when the sides were tied at 17-17.
Revenge for last year’s loss to Italy was sweet as the team remembered former player Arkadiusz Golas, who played at the 2004 Olympics in Greece but died in a car accident on Sept. 16 2005.
They dedicated their triumph to Golas, with Poland winning the European Championship on the anniversary of his death at the venue where he played his last game for the country.
“We knew Arek would watch over us, float in the air, and indeed, maybe today Arek was with us and helped us play better,” Aleksander Sliwka, Poland’s outside hitter told TVP Sport.
“Today’s date, this anniversary, all this takes on a special meaning. We are happy and certainly we also dedicate this victory to Ark.”
Now, Poland hope to finally taste Olympic success again in France next year and emulate the legends of 1976.