The oddest day in European sports was September 16, 2007. It was the day when the sea took the place of the sky and the sky the place of the earth. When all prophets laughed and the gods decided to discard the heroes, to let the men win in their place.
That day, two very far away from each other cities, hosted two finals of two different sports.
In Moscow, at the Eurovolley 2007 final, the dominant Russian team, a historical volleyball powerhouse, faced a surprising Spanish team, that got to the final thanks to the tactical intelligence of their coach, Andrea Anastasi.
In Madrid, at the Eurobasket 2007 final, the powerful Spanish team coached by Pepu Hernandez, with Pau Gasol and Joachim Navarro among the others, and Russia, coached by David Blatt and led on the court by Andrei Kirilenko.
It was a strange day. In Spain and in Moscow the same national teams would face each other in two different sports, the odds being very clear for a very favorite one: Spain in Basketball, and Russia in Volleyball.
The Russian basketball team had inherited a great tradition from the Soviet basketball team, though the soviets were made mostly of Lithuanians and Latvians, and a minority of Russians. They approached Euro 2007 as underdogs, displaying Andrej Kirilenko’s class, and a group of good players, though seemingly not able to withstand the best.
The Spanish volleyball team was an absolute surprise. Spain owned virtually no tradition in volleyball, and, apart from Rafa Pascual, a star in the Italian championship, never really had top players. They managed to get to the final thanks to relentless defense, a team approach and a dominant blocking.
The two games seemed already definite. The Spanish basketball team featured some of the best players of the following decade, while the Russian volleyball one had demolished all their opponents thanks to an incredible group of scorers.
First, in Moscow, the Volleyball final took place. Russia and Spain faced each other in front of 10000 people, all gathered to see the powerful Russian team easily beat Spain.
In the first set, Spain took an early lead, 4-1, showing they were mentally ready to the game. They blocked, then hit and defended, never letting the ball go down. Smaller than the Russians, but more agile, they used long passages to make the tall Russian players move and make them uncomfortable.
They knew that, had they given up the small advantage, they would have not kept up with the Russians. So, they were able to keep 3-4 points of advantage, responding every hit of the Russians with ferocious determination. The Spanish went up, 17-11, then 22-16, always managing to avoid stretches of points from the Russians.
Spain won the first set, 25-18. Russia managed to win the following two sets, 25-20 and 26-24, but Spain never felt inferior and always made it hard for Russia to score even one point.
The fourth set was an endless battle, conducted point to point. Anastasi watched calmly from the sideline, managing to change players constantly. He told his boys to serve slowly, making it difficult for the tall Russians to bend their knees and receive the ball. The Russians served missile-like balls, that the Spanish received well. The Spanish team kept the Russians at distance, never succumbing the incredible speed at which the ball would cross the net.
On 24-23, though, Russia had a match point. Poltavski served a very fast ball. Spain received but sent the ball back to the Russian side, where two players confused each other. The ball went back to the Spanish that passed to De La Fuente who used the Russians’ stretched hands to send the ball out.
Spain was able to get one point of advantage and keep it until 29-28. Then, Rafa Pascual served a poisonous ball that the Russians did not receive well, making Kulesov hit in a bad position and send the ball out. It was 2-2 and a set to play, the tiebreak.
The favorite team, in these moments, does not know well what to do. They face an underdog team playing the game of their life. They feel like a hunter who has lost his weapon, and has to face a lion. The day after, the rankings will return to the same level, but in this moment, the weaker team possesses a strength, that you can’t dominate.
The mindset is in favor of the underdog team. They have nothing to lose, they can risk, they can have courage. Khamuttskik, the Russian setter, watched in disbelief as the Spanish got ready for the serve. Russia scored the first point, shaking themselves from the torpor of an unexpectedly long game.
Spain got to 8-4. The Russians kept shooting fastballs, while the Spanish serves were loose balls aiming at not giving the Russians the speed to attack quickly. It looked like a boxing match, between a hitter with a strong fist, and one who defends moving fast around the ring.
In these cases, the hitter gets crazy, trying to get the opponent, reluctant to a face to face fight, but the opponent changes continually the perspective and the hitter adapts slowly. The Russians followed the Spanish all the match; they could never find a way to impose their game, they followed, though they tried to stop the Spanish..
At 10-8 in the tie break for Spain, Russia served. It was very fast, on the video the almost invisible ball crossed the net and went too far. Spain got to 11-8 and Russia became desperate. In volleyball, it is hard to keep the serve, so if you are down you must think that every serve the opponents make, they’re likely to lose it. But, at the same time, that the key is YOUR serve.
The Russian coach called a nervous timeout; he did not know what to say. The teams went back to the court and Spain kept the advantage until 13-10. Then, a last effort by Russia brought them to 14 -14.
Now, who gets two points of advantage, wins. Russia served, Israel Rodriguez received the ball, the setter gave it back to him. Two Russians elevated an impressive wall. They seemed to be giants. Rodriguez did not see much, he could only play with their hands. He sent the ball on their fingers, and the ball took a strange rotation, heading on the left and giving the Spanish point number 15.
On the Spanish serve, Russia did everything well, but the Spanish built a curtain just over the net and the ball fell in the Russian’s side, giving Spain the victory.
Meanwhile, in Madrid, Spain and Russia prepare for the 2007 Eurobasket final.