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LONDON, July 29 (Reuters) - Poland lived up to their billing as men's Olympic volleyball title contenders with a thrilling opening win over triple world champions Italy on Sunday, backed by a deafening crowd of red and white clad fans at Earls Court.
The Poles defeated Olympic champions the United States three weeks ago to take the World League title and the thirst for a first Olympic gold since 1976 resulted in an atmosphere louder and more intimidating than when hosts Britain made their bow at the Games earlier in the day.
Italy, with every serve met by ferocious boos, did their best to silence the opposition fans by taking the first set in the Group A clash but their resistance did not last as Poland, ranked third in the world, swept home 21-25 25-20 25-23 25-14.
While Italy player Emanuele Birarelli admitted the noise played a part in the defeat, Poland coach Andrea Anastasi called for calm among his team's supporters.
"In Poland we have become celebrities, we cannot go around freely any more, but it is a little bit too much, we haven't won anything important yet," Italian Anastasi told reporters.
In Group B, fellow title contenders Brazil, Russia and the U.S. - aiming to become the first men's team to win four Olympic golds - claimed straight-sets victories on the first day of preliminary round action.
U.S. Olympic debutant Matthew Anderson took the plaudits with 18 points against 2011 European champions Serbia.
In Group A, Britain's Games debut began with a straight-sets defeat by Bulgaria, ranked ninth in the world, while Australia also went down in three sets to Argentina.
The match of the day was undoubtedly Poland's whose every movement was greeted by chanting fans.
The players asked the supporters to raise the roof and upped their own performances too with the night's top scorer Bartosz Kurek diving under the commentator's table at one point to try to save a point.
"A lot of Polish people live in London, they love volleyball. We counted on this happening," said captain Marcin Mozdzonek.
Britain captain Ben Pipes, who was up with his team mates at 0520 local time to warm up for their match, said the day was a momentous one for his side who are ranked 92nd in the world behind countries like Haiti, Oman and Nicaragua.
"It was real goose bumps. We've built up for five years - you might as well have had a five-year tunnel down to here. We feel like we've been digging in the dark and suddenly we've cracked the light and it's just incredible," he said.
The team have endured heavy funding cuts in recent years and struggled for quality opponents in the build-up to the Games.
Britain's next opponents on Tuesday, Australia, lost to Argentina in what was something of a family affair at the London venue.
'Volleyroos' coach Jon Uriarte, who in 1988 won bronze with Argentina and has also been in charge of his native country, watched son Nicolas come on as a substitute to help sink his Australia team.
Brazil's long-standing coach Bernardo Rezende and son Bruno were in a happy mood after the twice Olympic and triple world champions coasted to a straight-sets victory over Tunisia.
The South Americans next face world number two and 2000 silver medallists Russia who floored Germany in straight sets with key man, spiker Maxim Mikhaylov, in fine form. (Editing by Tony Jimenez)