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Indian volleyball aims for its high point at Club World Championships

Ahmedabad Defenders’ participation in the Men’s Club World Championships in Bengaluru is a rare period of optimism for Indian volleyball

Launched in 1989, the men’s club world championships in volleyball pre-dates the more popular Fifa Club World Cup that follows a similar format.
Launched in 1989, the men’s club world championships in volleyball pre-dates the more popular Fifa Club World Cup that follows a similar format. (Courtesy: Ahmedabad Defenders; Prime Volleyball League)

For decades, it has been one step forward two steps back for Indian volleyball. On 6 December, the sport hopes to step into the spotlight once again as it debuts at the Men’s Club World Championships as hosts. Ahmedabad Defenders, champions of the 2023 Prime Volleyball League, will represent India at the premier club world event, which will take place at Bengaluru’s Koramangala Indoor Stadium from 6-10 December.

Launched in 1989, the men’s club world championships in volleyball pre-dates the more popular Fifa Club World Cup that follows a similar format. Top teams from different confederations compete for the title. Sir Safety Susa Perugia (Italy), Sada Cruzeiro Volei and Minas Tênis Clube (Brazil), Suntory Sunbirds Club (Japan), Halkbank Spor Kulübü (Turkey) and India’s Ahmedabad Defenders will participate in the 2023 Men’s Club World Championships.

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A golden opportunity

Italy (ranked No 3 in the world) Brazil (4), Japan (5) and Turkey (14) are all volleyball powerhouses. India, meanwhile, doesn’t have a national federation and has slumped to 73 in the men’s rankings, below sub-continent teams like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

“This is the greatest opportunity for us, for players as well as Indian volleyball,” says Dakshinamoorthy Sundaresan, former player and coach of the Ahmedabad Defenders. “Our players have a lot of talent, finally they will get a world platform to display it.”

It is a rare period of optimism for Indian volleyball. The participation in the club world tournament comes on the back of a defiant performance at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. India defeated 2018 silver medalists Korea 25-27, 29-27, 25-22, 20-25, 17-15 in a thriller before scoring a 25-22, 25-22, 25-21 win over the Chinese Taipei, ranked 30 places ahead of India at the time, to finish at the top of Pool C and enter the quarterfinals. Though they lost to Japan in the last eight and later to Pakistan, the team finished a creditable sixth at the continental event.

Especially considering that the team was starved of competition. India played just one international tournament – the Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship in Iran – in 2023 before the Asian Games.

“In 2018, we didn’t do very well in the Asian Games,” says Mohan Ukkrapandian, a veteran India player and setter for the Ahmedabad Defenders. “We had finished twelfth. This time, a few of us, who were in the team in 2018 as well, were keen on doing better. We were very focussed while training. We had to something to prove; we knew only if we do well, we can bring volleyball back into the limelight.”

With no federation to fall back on, it’s the players that have taken it upon themselves to revive volleyball in India. The men’s team was a force to reckon with in Asia from the 1960s through to the 1980s. India has won three medals in men’s volleyball at the Asian Games – a bronze in 1958 (Tokyo, Japan), silver in 1962 (Jakarta, Indonesia) and another bronze in 1986 (Seoul, South Korea).

But the sport’s footprint has steadily faded over the decades, mainly due to the power struggle between the warring factions in the federation. The Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) has been under suspension since December 2019 due to the internal feud, and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) finally set up an ad-hoc committee in May 2023 to look after the daily operations of the federation.

In the run up to the Asian Games, the Indian team suffered another setback as they were withdrawn from the 2023 Asian Men's Volleyball Challenge Cup, in Taiwan, mid-way through the tournament. India had won their opening match 25–22, 25–18, 25–17 against Hong Kong, but the Indian ad-hoc committee disallowed India’s participation in the tournament hence the result did not count.

No national championships

Due to the VFI suspension, there have been no national championships for the past four years. Despite India’s encouraging show at the Hangzhou Asian Games, volleyball did not feature in this year’s National Games, held in Goa in October-November, since the ad-hoc committee decided they did not have enough time, or money, to select eight teams.

“There is no federation in India, there are no national championships at any age group,” Dakshinamoorthy adds. “All the volleyball players in India depend on public sector jobs for their income. But since there are no national tournaments anymore, younger players coming through satisfy the formal norms required for them to get a job. For the last four years, the players are suffering. We have a year-long programme for all players in the League. But we cannot motivate players because they have nothing else to play. They are questioning, ‘What is the purpose of playing volleyball?’ Parents are also not willing to send their children to the sport.”

For Ashwal Rai, one of the mainstays of the Indian team, the pro volleyball League, re-launched as the Prime Volleyball League in 2022, without any VFI support or interference, has given the sport a new lease of life in India.

“For a long time, we did not get any international tournaments, international exposure,” says Rai, who will play as a middle blocker for the Defenders at the Club World Championships.

“But we get to play with some of the best international players in the Prime Volleyball League. The League has helped unearth some great talent. Those players who earlier didn’t get an opportunity are getting one now. We saw the results at Asian Games. This is what we want,” adds Rai.

The Prime Volleyball League is not as cash-rich as some of the other franchise-based leagues in the country: at the PVL 2023 auction, Rohit Kumar was the most expensive buy at 17.5 lakhs ahead of the second season. Meanwhile in Pro Kabaddi, which is seen as a benchmark for non-cricket sports in India, players breached the 1-crore mark in 2018 (season 6) and Pawan Kumar Sehrawat became the most expensive player in league’s history when he was snapped up for 2.6 crore by the Telugu Titans for season 10 in 2023-24. Though at a much smaller scale, PVL has provided players with some financial security.

And a wealth of experience.

“We have learnt a lot from the international players, how they stay calm but aggressive. They are technically superior, we have learnt how to manoeuvre the ball better,” Rai says.

He continues: “Playing the League for the first time was a strange experience. A game would last 15 points and the ace would be worth two points. We needed some time to adapt to those because 15 points fly by. But once we started playing, we realised the importance of each point in a game, how to fight for each point. Implementing that attitude in a 25-point game has seen our performance improve, I think it was one of the reasons why we did well at the Asian Games as well. We had problems till now, being in this volleyball set up. But now we are seeing the way ahead.”

The way ahead is still long and arduous for Indian volleyball, but the pieces of the puzzles are slowly falling into place. While the PVL pushed volleyball to prime time on Indian television, the Club World Championships could be the players’ gateway to international stardom. Having trudged through the trenches for so long, Indian spikers are ready to leap into the spotlight.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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