There are heights a human being can reach on the back of a couple of steps, but there is only so much power a combination of hamstrings and calves can generate. No one told Miguel Angel Lopez.
Lopez plays volleyball for the Cuban national team and for South American club champions Sada Cruzeiro and you can't really comprehend how high he jumps till you see him do it.
Not on a video, but in real life, where you can see how he seems to be shorter than most around him (at 6' 3", he is), where you can see how much higher the net is than his head. You can't really comprehend what he does when he gets to those great heights either, till you hear the smack his hand makes on the volleyball, the thud the ball makes on the floor when it lands. The TV graphics will tell you that he can spike from heights of around about three and a half metres (~11.5 feet) and that the ball travels at about 120 km/h when it leaves his hand. But it's the sounds that defines it.
Watching Lopez, and others, in action at the FIVB Men's Volleyball World Club Championships in Bengaluru is watching sporting prowess at another level. The Lopez spikes (hit so hard, you flinched in the stands). The Lucao blocks (covering ground, calculating angles, placing his hands perfectly at the net). The Wallace de Souza touch of genius (leaping in the air and changing from spike to a gentle nudge with almost the same action). Lopez is one of the most exciting players in world volleyball right now and the other two are A-list greats of the game, bonafide legends. And here they were, speaking directly to our adrenal glands in a way nothing else can.
Incredibly, on Friday, they were beaten by Turkish club Halkbank SK. Absolutely thrashed. By Earvin N'Gapeth, all muscle and hustle and Olympic gold winning hitting. By Nimir Abdel-Aziz, one of the best servers in the world, his serves (and spikes) swinging viciously and late - like a fast bowler who's discovered the magic of a nail under a seam. By John Perrin, who you knew was ending any move that came within swatting distance of his massive hands. By Micah Ma'a, the US national team's setter, who kept feeding the angry, hungry spiking of N'Gapeth and Abdel-Aziz and Perrin with unerring accuracy.
CONGRATS @HalkbankSK ����!
They advance to the semifinal round tomorrow Dec 9.
�� Watch the matches on https://t.co/Rb6x7u4lH9.
➡️ Full event schedule: https://t.co/2BeF4FMcW8
- Volleyball World (@volleyballworld) December 8, 2023
It's a unique experience for India -- you may see some of the best badminton players in the world come to the India Open, you might have seen Formula One's greats come to Noida when that GP was still on, but you rarely see this quality of athlete compete for one of their sport's greatest honours here.
Which is why it was a little sad to see the empty seats: there should have been a line all around the block for tickets and yet here we were, unable to fill out the very modest NGV Indoor stadium. This is not a knock on the organisers (who have done a pretty solid job) or on FIVB's (the world body for volleyball) ambition to grow the sport around the world but perhaps a reflection of the lack of sporting culture in this country. Although when a men's cricket World Cup struggles to fill stadia for non-India matches, what chance does volleyball have.
Happily, there was a slightly larger (and much noisier) crowd in attendance for Friday's second match, when the Ahmedabad Defenders were in action. They are India's best team, PVL champions, and are filled with national team regulars. They compete hard, play well as a team. They were also absolutely no match for Sir Safety Perugia, the world champions.
You could see glimpses of the Indian talent early on in the three sets, in Angamuthu Ramaswamy's spiking or Manoj Manjunatha's blocking or Muthusamy Appavu's setting, but as the sets wore on, the Italian team soared.
Simone Giannelli is arguably the best player in the world right now (reigning MVP at both club and national team world championships) and you could see why, easily. He played just one set, but it was enough. He set the ball exactly where his spikers wanted it, he set it in the middle, to the opposite side, behind him. His fingers had to barely brush the ball, and it knew exactly where it was supposed to go and stand.
And where the ball stood, a flying Jesus Herrera (of Cuba, left hand whirring through the air like a high-powered chainsaw about 11 ft in the air) or Oleh Plotnytskyi (of Ukraine, one of the best spikers in the world, another left-handed menace) would meet it with a force that's barely human.
Congrats to Italy's @SirVolleyPG ����!
�� Watch the matches on https://t.co/Rb6x7u4TwH.
➡️ Full event schedule: https://t.co/2BeF4FMKLG
- Volleyball World (@volleyballworld) December 8, 2023
Perugia won 3-0, and they rarely had to slip out of second gear. So much so that Wilfredo Leon, one of the all-time greats of the sport, came, warmed up, sat down, and waved to the crowd. Such was his aura, though, that he didn't even have to step onto the court for everyone there to go "woah" at the sight of him. As if the action on court wasn't enough.
The Italian side have embraced this Indian adventure like no other, and it's not just their on-court dominance. On the backs of the collars of their staff jerseys, there was a simple message spelt out: "The Indian Dream". Come to India, win in India. If the Italian champions can embrace an Indian dream, why not the Indian champions? Why not an Indian crowd? Why not the Indian administration?
P.S. On the way back home, sat in Bengaluru traffic, a thought struck. We've all heard of the legend, of Jimmy George going and playing in Europe, but on Friday his sheer uniqueness was underlined. You see, George didn't just play against the very best in the world, he played with them. Week-in, week-out, he played with the best in the world. Seeing how far Indian volleyball has to get before it can even dream of doing something like that again gives you a special appreciation for that unparalleled lost genius.