Italians love to participate in as many sports as possible, whether as an individual or on a team. Outdoor sports like soccer, cycling, basketball, and Formula One are popular in the country. Soccer lovers especially know that Italy is currently one of the most successful teams in the World Cup, whose citizens take national pride in mentioning and celebrating this fact often.
However, would you believe that Italians are not just soccer lovers? They have the best volleyball team in the world and their interest in volleyball is as high as any other outdoor sport of international repute. They ruled the roster in the early 1990s and 2000s, winning European and world championships alike.
While this seems like no easy feat, we are talking about a country whose team has 66 medals under their belt across 9 leagues and championships. There is a level of passion and aptitude that makes the Italians a different breed compared to their contemporaries. Let us see why Italians are considered the best volleyball players in the world, both in the men’s and women’s category.
Volleyball Is Italian
Volleyball was first seen in Italy after the first World War and the first official federation was formed and called FIPV (Federazione Italiana Palla a Volo). By the end of the second World War, Italians played many tournaments that helped garner more popularity in smaller towns and across the country.
This helped Italy in generating not only interest but also mass participation in volleyball as a sport. This led to the formation of the “NBA of Volleyball” – the SuperLega.
What the Oscars are to movies, “SuperLega” is to volleyball. It is the highest-ranking professional volleyball competition held in Italy. The league was formed in the 20th century and was known as Serie A in the late 1940s. Then it was renamed Serie A1 until the end of 2014.
So, why are we talking about this league, and what is so special about it? The best breed of world players come from this league and prospective players yearn to be good enough to play for the SuperLega tournaments.
Serie A2 – The Winning Strategy
With the success of the SuperLega, Italians turned their attention to get higher participation not only from men but also women. Also, the media coverage of the preceding games garnered the much-needed hype to start another sister league. This led to Serie A being split into a second, Serie A2, and as of today, multiple teams from within Italy send professional players to international competitions.
There are 17 female A2 teams in Italy with at least 21 major wins from 1996 until 2018. Both the men’s and women’s teams under this banner are governed by the Italian Volleyball Federation and hence any wins from Serie A2 are a direct credit for the Italian International Volleyball scene in the world of sports.
Since the success of the bifurcation of the SuperLega into Serie A1 and A2, there have been many subsets played locally and regionally in Italy, making them the best in the business.
Participation and Pressure
As of 2018, there were over 300,000 Italian sportsmen and women who actively participated in volleyball to make a career out of it and to add to the glory of the Italian volleyball legacy.
Also, there are more than 4,000 indoor Italian societies that promote the sport and help as a support function in games. No wonder thousands flock from the countryside to watch these games. There is a saying that numbers don’t lie and Italy has solid proof to show why they are the best. Since its inception of the leagues, federations and even local bodies, the country continues to pull in more and more revenue from volleyball matches.
For example, the SuperLega games earned over $4.4 million in the 2018-2019 calendar year, given the fact that at least 9,000 people watch these games live from the stadium with an average ticket price of about $10. If the pressure to perform wasn’t enough due to the sheer size of the audience watching these games, the players have to undergo further mental exercise since big, multinational companies sponsor these events with the hopes of either being associated with champions or to get a better marketing ROI.
Some of the prominent names include LG electronics, Del Monte, Kraft and Linkem. The players get to practice under these high-pressure conditions from the beginning of their career, turning them into the finest warriors.
You could say that these days it is not difficult to get sponsorship money, and all players across all the sports have to face some sort of pressure, so what makes Italian volleyball so different and a top-notch? Critics have raised these questions, especially with the growing popularity of sports like soccer/football.
The Italians successfully won back the trophy in the Champions Cup tournament that was taken away from all European nations 26 years prior and struggled to be earned back. Similarly, in the past, the Italians have been known to surprise the world of volleyball across all formats and games, both under the men’s and women’s categories. This is solid evidence as to why Italians are the best irrespective of what critics have to say.
As of 2020, Italians have fallen in rank to number 7 in men’s category and number 4 in women’s, but they are still a team that are expected to make a big return to number 1 someday soon. Bruno Cattaneo, the president of Italian Volleyball Federation, is noted as saying, “I am extremely satisfied with the state of volleyball in this country.”
World Ranking Players
If you look at the top 10 players in the world as of 2021, at least six of them are Italians. If you consider all-time top players, you will find at least two of them are Italians. This shows that the Italians take their volleyball seriously, just as the Americans take baseball or basketball.
Unfortunately, these players do not make the obscene amount of money like footballers do, but they are also known to have lucrative contracts and sponsorships, apart from other brand deals. One of the top players worth their salt is Andrea Marchisio known for the Italian Cup where he showed his prowess and skills.
He has been ranked number one in this format of the game. Currently, he plays for the club Cucine Lube Civitanova and has 300 plus spikes and an equal number in blocks under his belt. The man plays at Libero position and has constantly found himself in the “top 10 payers of the world” list. Another great player is Osmany Juantorena Portuondo, who is a part of the Cuba national volleyball team, though he is of Italian origin.
Like Andrea, he also plays for Cucine Lube Civitanova and has numerous accolades under his name. For example, he is a record holder of the highest number of Most Valuable Player awards at the FIVB championships. He has be awarded MVP on 4 different occasions! The man has won awards over and over again since 2005 and there is no stopping the juggernaut Osmany.
It would be an absolute error to discuss only Italian world players under the men’s category when the women have equally contributed to making the country the best volleyball hub in the world. One such name is Paola Ogechi Egnou, who plays for AGIL Novara and has been a pride for the Italian women’s team for some time now. She was conferred as Woman of the Year in 2019 by the weekly magazine publication La Repubblica.
Another name popular in this category is Francesca Piccinini, and what makes her so popular is her consistency in top-notch games. Having played multiple tournaments, she has been ranked in the top 10 in all games, except for the Italian Cup where she was ranked number 17. She has also won the gold medal in her Summer Olympics participation.
Talking about world champions requires a mention of Viktoria Orsi Toth, who is more known for beach volleyball. She got a career-high world ranking of number 7 in the year 2016. In her career she has won two gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals. The lady is a ranked player on the FIVB World Tour and a prominent name in the Italian Volleyball Sport.
Italian Volleyball is here to stay, given the historical participation and victories over the last 40 years. Yes, to give credit to the critics, the sport has fallen in popularity ratings due to other international games like soccer; however, to say that this sport has lost its charm in the country would be an absurd claim.
Italy has been able to create world champions and retain them, consistently landing on the top 20 list for years, a true testament to what makes them the best volleyball country in the world.