LONDON, July 19 (Reuters) - Brazilian flair and togetherness, coupled with an extraordinary amount of experience, make their men’s and women’s volleyball teams the big favourites for glory at the London Olympics.
In the men’s arena, world champions Brazil will be gunning for a third Games title and look a better bet than current Olympic champions the United States, who will still hope for a podium spot.
Volleyball was introduced to the Olympics at the 1964 Games in Tokyo and since then has been a stalwart for the four-yearly event with the United States and Brazil winning five of the last seven men’s golds.
The United States surprisingly beat Brazil in the final in Beijing four years ago but charismatic Brazilian coach Bernardo Rezende is back for another crack after 11 years in the job.
Experience also comes in the form of Gilberto Amauri de Godoy Filho, known as Giba, who was instrumental in helping Brazil win gold in Athens in 2004.
The 35-year-old captain, hoping to play in his fourth Olympics, has a titanium rod in his left leg to help heal a fracture.
While Rezende has kept most of his squad in tact, including son and ace setter Bruno, the United States have lost one of their most inspirational players.
Captain and setter Lloy Ball retired after the 2008 Games but coach Alan Knipe still boasts the likes of powerful outside hitter Reid Priddy.
Among the Europeans, Russia, Poland and Italy should be among the medal contenders but European champions Serbia will only be dark horses without the outstanding Ivan Miljkovic, who has retired from international volleyball.
Poland’s 23-year-old spiker Bartosz Kurek is one of the biggest new names in world volleyball and could leave his devastating mark in London, where video technology will not be used despite trials elsewhere in the sport.
Bulgaria clinched the final Olympic berth after winning a qualification tournament in June but coach Radostin Stoychev and top player Matey Kaziyski quit immediately afterwards, accusing officials of interfering in domestic leagues.
Bulgaria open the men’s pool phase on July 29 against hosts Great Britain, participating in Olympics volleyball for the first time. The 12 teams are in two pools with the top four from each going into the quarter-finals
The women take to the Earl’s Court arena in west London, the opposite side of the city from the Olympic Park, from July 28.
Brazil are widely expected to retain their crown but world champions Russia and Italy could run them close with European champions Serbia and Turkey are not to be dismissed. (Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov and Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Peter Rutherford)