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28/06/2015 12:39
Germany show nerves of steel to claim first, historic European Games gold
2015 European Games

Baku, Azerbaijan, June 28, 2015. On Sunday morning Germany’s mentor Vital Heynen had shared his optimism ahead of the gold medal match with Bulgaria tweeting he had slept extremely well and thought this was a good omen for the final act of the men’s Volleyball tournament at the Baku 2015 European Games. He was proved right in the end since his guys claimed the coveted gold medal that the Belgian mentor had set his sight on already weeks – if not months – ago. The players captained by Jochen Schöps accomplished this feat by showing nerves of steel following a dramatic third set where they missed out on a two opportunities to finish it off but they deservedly started their celebrations at the end of the fourth stanza (25-16, 25-18, 29-31, 25-21).

This is Germany’s first ‘major’ international title in more than four decades – with the only exception being their European League gold in 2009 – and more specifically since the former German Democratic Republic had triumphed at the 1970 World Championships in Sofia. Russia complete the podium of the first ever European Games following their 3:1 win (26-24, 23-25, 25-23, 25-23) over Poland in the bronze medal match.

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Bulgaria vs. Germany 1:3 (16-25, 18-25, 31-29, 21-25)

Both Bulgaria and Germany got to play their first ‘major’ final in decades; though Germany had claimed gold in the 2009 edition of the CEV Volleyball European League and bronze at last year’s FIVB World Championships in Poland, this was the first time they got the chance to vie for a ‘major’ title since the former East Germany had topped the charts at the 1970 World Championships held in… Sofia. Back then Bulgaria was the team standing on the other side of the net and as hosts of the World Champs the ‘Lions’ had to settle for the silver, the same medal they had to be content with 10 years later at the Moscow Olympics, their last ‘major’ final to date which they lost to the Soviet Union.

Bulgaria’s resume also includes three bronze medals from the 2006 World Championships, 2007 World Cup and 2009 Europeans but as an emotional team captain Todor Aleksiev had stated after the victorious semi-final match with Poland, Sunday was some kind of D-Day as Bulgaria finally had the chance to fight for the most coveted place of the podium, waiting for the Final Round of this year’s European Championship to take place on home soil in Sofia and Varna.  

The final match was definitely a special occasion for Bulgaria’s sports community that on Saturday had celebrated their first gold medal at the Baku 2015 European Games in Badminton and the country’s President Rosen Plevneliev was also in attendance taking his seat on the VIP tribune of Crystal Hall already during the warm up of his compatriots in green shirts. Germany, on the other hand, were cheered on by their colleagues of the women’s national team whose European Games adventure had come to an end already on Tuesday in a dramatic quarter-final with Poland.

After skipping this year’s World League and travelling to Baku with almost all of their best players – but a couple of exceptions including György Grozer – Germany were spotted as the favourites going into the tournament and after an initial upset in their opening match with Russia they had indeed swept six wins in a row on the way to the ‘grand finale’. The real ‘man of the match’ from the semi with Russia, Christian Fromm opened his personal quest for gold with two straight points and an ace by Marcus Böhme contributed to Germany’s first positive break at 7:4. The march of the guys in golden shirts continued with almost no hesitation (16:9, 20:12) and they eventually brought the opening set to an end with a fairly comfortable 25-16 on a spike killed by – yet again – Christian Fromm. 

The story repeated itself also in the second set with Germany dictating the tempo of the game right from the early stages of this stanza (6:3, 10:6) and the players of Bulgaria looking almost hopeless as they did not seem able to find a way to stop a German team that was working like a perfect winning machine. Christian Fromm – who this year had a fairly good season in Italy with Sir Safety PERUGIA making the Playoffs 6 of the CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League – continued to leave his mark on the match propelling a 16:11 lead for his side at the second technical time-out. Setter Lukas Kampa orchestrated Germany’s wide array of spiking options in a superb way and a missed serve by Jani Jeliazkov sealed the final 25-18 win for Germany that at this stage was only one set way from a historic gold medal.

As for Bulgaria, the third set was on the other hand a make-or-break bout but the road was not easy at all as the ‘Lions’ trailed 5:8 at the first technical time-out. The men around 1996 Olympian Nikolay Jeliazkov attempted a comeback that resulted in the score being levelled at 10 and then again at 18. At this stage Vital Heynen stopped the actions and the break seemed to have worked really well since his guys re-started their quest for gold by scoring two straight points, including an ace by their captain and absolute leader Jochen Schöps. The drama followed later on as Bulgaria tied again at 21, and Svetoslav Gotsev stamped a block to claim a first-time lead for his side at 22:21. Bulgaria’s back-up setter Dobromir Dimitrov’s missed serve contributed Germany’s first match point but Nikolay Nikolov stayed cool to make it 24 all. A bad reception by Denys Kaliberda helped Bulgaria finish the next rally and get their first set ball, Germany responded well, a net fault by Fromm provided Bulgaria with their second opportunity to stay alive, and the drama continued until a Bulgarian block stamped the final 31-29 to stretch the final to at least a fourth stanza.

At this point the question was if Germany was going to suffer a psychological blow after missing out on their chances to finish it off in three sets but following a shaky start (0:2) they got back on track and the teams exchanged the lead back and forth up until Germany edged ahead at 13:10. A massive German block propelled the guys in golden shirts – another good omen apart from Vital Heynen’s good sleep from last night! – to an 18:13 lead and this time around they fully capitalised on it bringing the set, the match and the Volleyball competition of the first ever European Games to a happy end with a back-row attack by the always outstanding Christian Fromm (25-21), top scorer in the end with 21 points. 

“I am exhausted. I am completely drained emotionally. When you lose the last match it is hard. But I am very happy with the silver medals and the way we have been playing for the last two weeks. I have been at two Olympics and this is the closest you will get to that. Most of the teams here have been very good. When you stand in a final everything is possible. It is one match and today Germany was the best team,” said Bulgarian captain, Todor Aleksiev.

“It was a difficult match for us. We had a lot of pressure throughout the match and the third set was really, really hard for us. But we stuck to our game plan and that’s what made us take gold. No one can take this moment away from us, winning the first ever gold medal in the European Games. We are incredibly happy. In every book now our name will remain as the first champions in history and it is a great feeling,” said German player Matthias Pompe. 

Final standing

1.    Germany
2.    Bulgaria
3.    Russia
4.    Poland
5.    France
9.    Belgium
11.  Azerbaijan

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