It’s a special year for the anniversary of the VfB Friedrichshafen and the Berlin Air Games. The two clubs dominated German men’s volleyball for a quarter of a century, and in fact, in 1997, SV Bayer Wuppertal was the last German champion who did not come from the capital or from a town on Lake Constance with a population of 60,000. Since then, only Haveler or Berliners have been jumping the rather ugly bronze bowl – with the pendulum swinging further into Berlin. The fact that VfB has not won a single championship title since 2015 is hard to explain in any other way. Coach Mark Lebedev’s side missed a huge opportunity to dramatically change that on Wednesday night.
1:3 (26:24, 24:26, 24:26, 20:25) was the score at the end of an exciting game from the point of view of outside player VfB, who, after two starts at the start, now missed a second match point in the best streak among Five – and on Saturday in Berlin Max-Schmeling-Halle will probably have an unpleasant decision game ahead. “Berlin has always been the favourite – and we still got our chance on Saturday,” Friedrichshafen’s manager, Thelo Speth Westerholt, said the day after the unnecessary defeat, which VfB had to blame itself. Own, seven at the same time produces direct assumption errors and does not generally cut a good number in the assumption, has a problem at this level.
Friedrichshafen looked stronger than Berlin in the first three sets, especially in attack, and the defending champions were sometimes gasping for a four-point deficit. But then, in the second set, came the fireballs on Samuel Toya, the widely tattooed outdoor striker from Wallis and Futuna, France’s South Seas island. The ‘Warrior’ is what they now call the 35-year-old in Berlin who owns a bar in Cannes. He’s been injured for a long time this season and hasn’t played. Head coach Kao Neromand said: “Samuel is the heart of the team, very well known and therefore able to inspire his teammates. He has been a wake-up call to our team.”
In any case, Toya’s feelings were a blessing to the attacks, who also replaced Marek Sutola, who was better in the penalty area, with main striker Benjamin Bach, who seemed to be a bit overrated that evening. This is how they settled into their system. And so their builder Sergey Grankin, the Russian Olympic gold medalist from London 2012, who is respected by many volleyball fans and sponsors, found confidence in his teammates once again. The 37-year-old, who is still considered one of the best players in the world, also won the private duel with Slovenian Stiller Dejan Vincic of Friedrichshafen, the 2019 European Championship runner-up.
The Friedrichshafen team should not be written off anyway, because nothing can really shake them this season, not even the resurrection of Berlin in front of at least 2,391 spectators in New Ulm. It was the last game in the unpopular alternative arena Friedrichshafen, which VfB has been using in their home matches this season because their stadium is permanently closed due to construction defects. Last October, only 500 spectators attended the premiere in Neu-Ulm, more than an hour’s drive north of the lake, an imperfect record.
Not only the fans, but the club itself and its sponsors fear the loss of identity due to the long journey to the matches at home. “We hope to be able to announce a solution soon,” says Späth-Westerholt. And one indicates the direction of the house, for example in the Friedrichshafen exhibition hall. Even if the city and the trade fair operator of Lake Constance do not necessarily prove to be big advocates of this idea. But conditions like fall, when professional footballers have not had a training hall available for four weeks, is something volleyball players don’t want to experience anytime soon.
It also went poorly for VfB in terms of long-term play, which, like Berlin, has also struggled with injuries and corona disease and was eliminated early in the Champions League – unlike the Volleys, who have at least reached the quarter-finals. But then Friedrichshafen won the DVV Cup at the beginning of March, for the 17th time in the club’s history. Since then, the curve of the figure has begun to climb – culminating in this final high-class series against Berlin. However, aerial balls now have a home advantage that may not have been available all season. And they can fill their historical record with something new: never before has a German men’s team fallen 0:2 in a tournament final.