Bulgaria faces a tough challenge at the men’s European volleyball championship, which starts in on September 20, having been drawn in the ‘group of death’ with eternal nemesis Russia, as well as Germany and the Czech Republic.
The group stage matches will be played in quick succession on September 20-22 and, fortunately for Bulgaria, the match against Russia is the last of them, with qualification for the knock-out stages potentially locked-up for both teams.
But given the format of the tournament, the match will matter for both teams as the winners of the four pools in the preliminary round get a straight pass into the quarterfinals, while runners-up must play an additional play-off game against a third-placed team.
In Bulgaria’s case, that means playing the third-placed team from pool B – which features France, Poland, Slovakia and Turkey – and then playing the winner of pool B in the quarter-final. (The alternative scenario of finishing third in its own pool would put Bulgaria on collision course with Russia, the favourite to win the pool, in the quarter-final).
Since losing its best player Matei Kaziyski in June last year – who quit the national team in protest following the sacking of head coach Radostin Stoichev – Bulgaria has consistently exceeded expectations by finishing fourth in the 2012 and 2013 editions of the World League, losing to Cuba and Italy in the third-place match, respectively.
The team also made the semi-finals of the London Olympics in 2012, losing to perennial nightmare Russia (one of Bulgaria’s rare wins against Russia in recent years was at the 2009 European championships, in the bronze-medals match).
The 2013 European championship is co-hosted by Poland and Denmark, with the final due to be played on September 29 in Copenhagen. In Bulgaria, the matches will be broadcast live by television channel TV7.