Sofia, Bulgaria, October 13, 2015. On Tuesday night the Red Dragons of Belgium will be playing Baku 2015 European Games gold medalists Germany for a spot in the quarterfinals of EuroVolley 2015. Belgium had travelled to Bulgaria with many question marks following a preparation phase that did not run very smoothly but the guys mentored by coach Dominique Baeyens performed extremely well in Varna winning their matches with Belarus and Slovenia to settle for second place in Pool C.
“To say that our preparation phase was a bit complicated would be an understatement,” Baeyens recounts. “We have been dealing with injuries all the time and this affected the quality of our work. We played as many as 12 friendly matches and from what I can remember we won only one or two,” he continues. “Our setter Matthias Valkiers resumed playing only about three weeks ago and up until then he did not work with the rest of the team since he was still recovering from injury. Simon Van de Voorde was also injured for a long time and his recovery process has taken about four to five months. And as he had come back to the team to compensate for Valkiers’s injury, Franck Depestele got injured as well and finally could not come to Bulgaria,” he adds.
As their preparation was disrupted so much, Baeyens had come to Bulgaria not really knowing what to expect. “We started the international season very well; we played a good World League with the same players – more or less – who are on the team for this championship. We came to Bulgaria to play the Group 2 Finals and performed very well in Varna too. However, as we resumed our work in preparation for EuroVolley, because of the injuries and some other problems, things did run so well anymore. We played our last friendly match a week ago with Knack Roeselare and ended up winning only at the tie-breaker, but their team did not include quite many players who are competing at this European Championship, so we should actually have won easily. I understand these are only friendly matches but the guys were somehow a bit demoralized because we kept on losing and this affected their spirit and morale.”
However, things changed quite dramatically as soon as the Red Dragons arrived in Bulgaria. “We played our first match with Poland and even though we lost in three sets, I had good feelings from that match and realized that we were back on track. I knew we were physically very well prepared but did not know what to expect. After Poland, we played Belarus and won in three sets, without losing control over the game for any single moment. And finally we got to play Slovenia, a team which is on the rise right now and individually speaking, they have got quite some talent on their roster. The match was very close and decided by a very few balls and am happy to say that we scored those points that counted the most.”
Going into the match with Germany, Baeyens does not want to make any predictions: “I can only say that we are ready. I do not want to say that we can win or we will win, I am just confident that we will be able to play a good match and to deliver a good performance, after that we will see who is the one to celebrate in the end. I expect a close and tough match because Germany has a good team and some world-class players.”
Standing on the other side of the net will be the Belgian-born mentor of Germany, Vital Heynen, with whom Baeyens has a long rivalry dating back to the days these two were at the helm of Noliko Maaseik and Knack Roeselare, respectively. “He said he knows my players very well? Well, at this level there are no secrets and do not know if this can be called an advantage. We have scouted as many as 15 videos of Germany, so I think that we are ready and we know them very well too.”
Following Slovakia’s early elimination from the tournament, Belgium is most likely to make the cut for the Olympic qualifier that is set to take place in early January in Berlin: “I am not the kind of person who keeps himself busy with such calculations, but I know one of my assistants is keeping an eye on this. Slovakia will be losing many points they got after finishing fifth in 2011 and they are out of the competition now, so I think it should be fine for us. My players do not feel any pressure because of this; it is actually an extra motivation.”
Volleyball has never been as popular in Belgium as it is now but Baeyens knows where this attention comes from: “You definitely need good results to win people’s attention and our national teams have definitely made it to the next level since two or three years. I am personally involved in the scouting and growing of young volleyball talents at our volleyball school in Vilvoorde, but we should never forget that the numbers in Belgium are very small and you just cannot compare them to those of other countries. You need to grow players but you also have to find some natural talents like for instance Lise Van Hecke or Sam Deroo who can make the difference at any point during a match.”
If the Red Dragons make the quarterfinals, they would equal their performance from two years ago when they beat Italy in the pool phase before losing to eventual bronze medal winners Serbia in the last round preceding the semis. And if they make it through to the next stage, they would get to know how it feels to play before 12,000 fans at Arena Armeec. “This hall is just great,” says middle blocker Pieter Verhees, “and if we beat Germany we will play Bulgaria. I have never played before such large crowd in my life and I think it would be quite an experience, but first we have to edge Germany to make this happen.” Interestingly enough his parents and grandparents are set to stay in Bulgaria’s capital up until Thursday, and they certainly hope to be able to root for their son and grandson once the quarterfinals are contested on Wednesday night as well…
For more information on the 2015 CEV Volleyball European Championship - Men in social media, please use the competition’s official hashtag #EuroVolleyM.