2016 Review: Serbia claim first World League title

Lausanne, Switzerland, December 20, 2016 - The 27th edition of the FIVB Volleyball World League crowned Serbia but also gave spectators a taste of what was to come at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The first Group 1 Preliminary Round match took place in the Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro – and hosts Brazil outclassed Iran 3-0. When the top six in Group 1 met in Krakow for the competition's Finals, the ranking of Preliminary Round Pool K read as follows: 1. Brazil, 2. Italy, 3. USA.

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A good month later, the same teams would stand on the podium at the Olympic Games in exactly the same order. But nobody could have known that at the time of the World League. After all, the team making the headlines over the course of the 64 matches that made up Group 1 of the 2016 FIVB World League were Serbia, and they were the only finalists not qualified for the Olympics. 
Serbia made amends for missing out on Rio by winning their first World League title - at the 19th attempt - and picked up a million-dollar bonus in the process.

“Sixth time lucky, our volleyball team finally won the World League. Magic, fantasy, wonder,” wrote Politika, the country's oldest and most important daily newspaper. 

The team were celebrated by an entire nation upon the players' return to Serbia – celebrations which would be repeated a few weeks later when the Serbian women's team won silver in Rio de Janeiro.

The men’s victory had something magical about it – apparent "perpetual runners-up", Serbia had finally won the title in the most important annual event in the world of volleyball after finishing second five times (2003, 2005, both times as Serbia and Montenegro, 2008, 2009, 2015). And in the final, against FIVB World League record winners and hot favourites Brazil, they claimed a commanding 3-0 victory (25-22, 25-22, 25-21). The reward was not only a million-dollar prize and a huge consolation for missing out on qualifying for the Olympics, but also the respect of the entire volleyball world.

Brazilian coach Bernardo Rezende, who later led his team to Olympic gold, bowed down to Serbian trainer Nikola Grbic: “Serbia deserve only compliments, their coach for the tactics that he chose.”

Grbic had come under fire after missing out on qualifying for the Olympics in January. Nikola Grbic, the legendary player who led his team – playing under the name Yugoslavia at the time – to gold at the 2000 Olympics, offered to resign from his position. Federation head Aleksandar Boricic, however, confirmed that Grbic would lead the team's Tokyo 2020 project. And with victory in the FIVB World League, Grbic only took six months after the major Olympic disappointment to complete his masterpiece as a trainer.

"I honestly can't remember a team winning 3-0 against the Brazilians in the final of such a competition. I'm proud of this team. We are not preparing for the Olympic Games, so that's why we played like this and took the title from the other teams,” said Grbic. The team was a tight-knit group in the final, which they hadn't been since their Olympic win in 2000. Superstar Aleksandar Atanisejevic was unable to play the World League Finals – so his teammates pulled together and stepped into the breach for their top scorer.

Finals hosts and reigning world champions Poland were defeated 3-1 – and after a defeat against last year's winners France (3-2), Italy were overcome 3-2 in the semifinals. This was followed by one of the best performances in history in the final with a 3-0 win against Brazil. Serbia had previously won seven of their nine matches in the Preliminary Round.  That put them in third place at the end of the Preliminary Round, behind Brazil and the United States (both with eight wins). In acknowledgement of his outstanding performance, Marko Ivovic was named MVP and best outside spiker.

Brazil again finished second overall, following what was only their second defeat in the entire 2016 FIVB World League – the first also came at the hands of Serbia in the preliminary round (3-1). The wait for a historic tenth triumph continues for the record winners (nine wins), who last won the FIVB World League in 2010.

Defending champions France, who lost to eventual Olympic champions Brazil in the semifinals, defeated Italy in the bronze medal match.

Among those disappointed with their showings in the Finals were hosts and world champions Poland and the United States, who both crashed out in the group phase of the Finals.

Among the positive surprises to come out of the twelve-team Group 1 Preliminary Round tournament were Belgium. The Belgians defeated France in the Preliminary Round and came close to causing an upset against Olympic champions Brazil before narrowly missing out 3-2. Gert van de Walle was also the second highest scorer in the Preliminary Round with 153 points, behind Bulgarian star Tsvetan Sokolov (155).

FIVB World League winners:
1990: Italy
1991: Italy
1992: Italy
1993: Brazil
1994: Italy
1995: Italy
1996: Netherlands
1997: Italy
1998: Cuba
1999: Italy
2000: Italy
2001: Brazil
2002: Russia
2003: Brazil
2004: Brazil
2005: Brazil
2006: Brazil
2007: Brazil
2008: USA
2009: Brazil
2010: Brazil
2011: Russia
2012: Poland
2013: Russia
2014: USA
2015: France
2016 Serbia

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