Italian volleyball torn by men's storied success
Sometimes a winning tradition can be a burden and sometimes it's an inspiration.
Italy's volleyball teams are a good example. In the buildup to the Olympics, the men's team is struggling under the weight of a storied past while the women are thriving off it.
The fourth-ranked women are a medal favorite, having already qualified for the London Games, while the third-ranked men are still trying to qualify for one of the seven remaining qualifying places available for the Olympic tournament from July 27 to Aug. 12.
The men's team from the 1990s was regarded as one of the greatest ever and that continues to weigh on today's players, 14 years since Italy's last major international triumph - a third straight world title in 1998.
''We're proud of that (history) and we respect that a lot. But we know that this history is not helping us, it's not giving any plus to us,'' men's coach Mauro Berruto told The Associated Press in a phone interview. ''We cannot lose our humble approach because these players are not (Andrea) Gardini, (Andrea) Giani or (Lorenzo) Bernardi and I'm not (coach Julio) Velasco.
''We want to be ourselves and not be in the shadow of giants.''
While the men seem dogged by the past, the women are comfortable with it.
''To have a big history is not a problem. There are no more players from that team playing, so this team of Italy can make history, make its own history,'' women's coach Massimo Barbolini said. ''We already have (achieved) a lot, we have done a lot. No women's team has done what we have done.
''For the men's team yes, it will be very difficult but they still have two chances (to qualify).''
While Italy's females eye their first-ever Olympic medal, Berruto's squad still has to navigate the tough qualifying field knowing any slip-up could be viewed as disastrous.
''Now we have an almost completely new generation of players and they have to develop their own roles and identities,'' Berruto said. ''Nobody will take away the great history of Italy in volleyball but this great history is not helping, it is not making things easier or helping in any way.''
Barbolini wasn't sure if the previous successes had helped create this talented generation of women players, which he expected to make history. But he called the team of the past five years the best in the country's history. The women have already qualified for London, alongside fellow favorites the United States and China, with Algeria and the hosts in mix as well.
''Now we have to try and (take) one step more to arrive at a medal,'' Barbolini said.
While Barbolini previously worked as an assistant to Velasco, Berruto is about as far removed from the famous Argentine coach who led Italy during those glorious years that, surprisingly, yielded only silver in the 1996 Games and bronze at Sydney four years later.
The 43-year-old has worked in Greece and Finland, studied philosophy and traveled to Madagascar to work on a project focusing on local customs and traditions. Berruto believes his curious nature has rubbed off, although reading his own description of his team will probably send a shiver down Italy's most hardened volleyball fans.
''A team should look like its coach. I am not a former champion, I am not a former top level athlete I was really average or under-average athlete. I was not having a sports background but working and traveling, step-by-step making my own path and own road,'' Berruto said. ''I'm extremely happy that I have this chance to give my footprint to the team and to Italian volleyball.''
Berruto does leads a team with the talent to make its own history.
Talented wing spiker Simone Parodi leads a team that features center Dragan Travica, who is of Balkan descent, and wing spiker Ican Zaytsev, whose parents are Russian. Berruto relishes his team's diversity.
''We are a picture of a country that is changing, that can have some problems and struggle but doesn't quit on dreaming. We are working hard to get back the top positions, a country that considers differences as a treasure,'' Berruto said. ''It is not the easiest moment of our history and we wish to bring this new approach to things - multicultural and young, being humble with big dreams.''
The men can secure their spot in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May and, if that fails, bank on securing a place in June when they hosting the final qualifying tournament in Rome.
But qualifying in May would make preparation much easier than last minute.
''We have the potential and the players, the history and organization, all of the tools to have,'' Berruto said. ''There's no need to motivate players to fight for the Olympic games. This is the biggest dream of every athlete.''
Paul Logothetis can be reached at: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP