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September 8, 2000
Italian volley squad aims for goldGideon Long
Italian men's volleyball coach Andrea Anastasi has spent much of this year dreaming of the Olympic final on October 1.
In his dream, Italy win the gold.
He is not sure who they beat but he has a hunch that spiker Simone Rosalba, one of the new boys in his seasoned squad, scores the winning points.
"I work with that objective in mind," Anastasi told Reuters from the team's pre-Olympic training camp in the northern town of Boaria. "I imagine the boys on the podium after winning gold. They're celebrating with their medals."
"It's the image of what we want to do at the Olympics although of course it will be difficult."
Anastasi's dream has a sound foundation. The Italian men have dominated world volleyball for more than a decade, lifting a remarkable 21 world and European trophies since 1989.
They were world champions in 1990, 1994 and 1998 -- the only side to have won the tournament three times.
When they beat Russia in last year's European championship final, they chalked up their fourth victory in the competition in 10 years following successes in 1989, 1993 and 1995.
They have won the annual World League title eight times in 11 years and were World Cup champions in 1995.
But one thing is missing. They have never won Olympic Gold.
The Italians travelled to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as reigning world champions but lost to eventual silver medallists, the Netherlands, as early as the quarter-finals and had to settle for fifth overall.
Four years later in Atlanta they came up against the Dutch again -- this time in the final.
The match was one of the most dramatic in the 36-year-history of men's Olympic volleyball.
The Italians twice came back from a set down to take the match to a decider which they lost 17-15 after squandering a championship point at 15-14.
"It's true we've never won the Olympic title but I've never been to the Olympics before, so maybe that means I've got a chance," Anastasi said hopefully. "It's my first Games. Let's hope I can be the first Italian coach to win gold."
Italy will compete in Sydney in group B, perhaps slightly the easier of the two first-round pools.
They face formidable European rivals in Yugoslavia and Russia but have avoided Cuba, 1992 champions Brazil, hosts Australia and their old friends the Dutch.
The other teams in group B are the United States, Argentina and South Korea.
"Yugoslavia and Russia are without doubt the teams who, along with ourselves, have the best chances of emerging from our group and maybe even winning the title," Anastasi said.
"But we also have a lot of respect for the United States who always cause us trouble."
Italy's decade of success has spurred interest at home in a sport which until the 1970s was exclusively the preserve of the small, prosperous towns of the Veneto and Emilia Romagna regions of the northeast.
The first four men's Italian league titles were won between 1946-1949 by Ravenna, a sleepy town on the Adriatic coast known for its Byzantine mosaics rather than its sporting prowess.
Nearby Modena, more readily associated with the Ferrari Formula One team than volleyball, won 11 successive titles from 1953-1963 and remain the most successful side in the country with 21 championship crowns.
But the sport is breaking out of the provinces.
Serie A volleyball teams have emerged in the southern cities of Palermo and Taranto and the league has seen an influx of top international players from Russia and Cuba.
Last May, three days after Lazio brought the Serie A soccer title to Rome, the city's volleyball side matched them by winning the title for only the second time ever, beating Modena in a play-off in front of a league record 13,000 fans.
"The sport is really expanding in Italy at the moment," Anastasi said. "People are finally starting to appreciate what a spectacular sport volleyball is."
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