The weakest pool in my opinion. I would consider conspiracy theories that the FIVB gave Italy and Bulgaria the easiest draw, but they did Livestream the drawing on facebook so I’ll let this one slide. Any team could grab a spot in the top 4 and qualify, so there is little room for error. Which will be fun because these are some of the streakiest teams in the tournament. I also predict this pool to have the highest number of red cards.
The reigning world champions have a ravenous fanbase that wouldn’t be happy with anything other than a repeat. With no top 4 performances at any tournament since 2014, that could be a tall order. There are a few positive trends for Poland however. They have the distinction of being the only team to take a set from Russia in the final round of the nations league. A win at the Hubert Wagner memorial tournament against Russia, France, and Canada should also give them some momentum. The MVP of that tournament, Artur Szalpuk, looks like he’ll be a great pairing with Michal Kubiak. Poland should cruise to a top finish in this pool but will have their work cut out for them in the crossover.
Saied Marouf and the gang are one of the dark horses of the world championships. They have talented players at every position, and Seyed Mousavi and Milad Ebadipour are among the best in the world at middle and outside. Iran is one of the few teams that have a chance at upsetting “the big 8” and sneaking into a pot in the final 6. To do this though, they have to play more consistently than they did in nations league. This is a team that gets flustered easily and can start producing unforced errors at unfortunate times. Maintaining composure will be important against a hostile Bulgarian crowd will be important, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a material amount of Iranian fans who travel to support their team.
This might have not been the best tournament for Bulgaria to host. Throughout their rich & storied volleyball history, the team they are bringing to this World Championships is among the weakest. Losing superstar opposite Tsvetan Sokolov hurts them tremendously, as he was their first attacking option and a superb blocker. Even without him though there is no shortage of blockers on this team. The three-man middle rotation of Viktor Yosifov, Nikolay Nikolav, and Svetoslav Gotsev might be the best at blocking in the tournament. Bulgaria had their best weekend of nations league at home, so maybe the energy of their fans will cause them to crescendo rather than crash.
I have switched around the rankings of these bottom three teams numerous times. I have no idea who is going to grab the bottom qualifying spot in this pool. Finland has a pretty good shot at it though. Many of their players have experience playing in high-level competition, and they are a team that plays up, rather than down, to their competition. Setter & captain Eemi Tervaportti provides a skilled and disciplined presence that the team feeds off. Libero Lauri Kerminen is a libero to watch. He plays his club ball for Kuzbass Kemerovo in Russia, the only foreign libero in their league. Finland lacks firepower, but they can make up for it with execution.
5. Puerto Rico
North America is well represented at the bottom of this pool. While it is a stronger conference than Africa, it is still much easier to qualify in than Europe. Puerto Rico is not a pushover though. Opposite Maurice Torres tore it up for Zaksa in the Plusliga this year and should be one of the best scorers of the world championships. Angel Perez is a poor man’s Benjamin Toniutti, which is not a bad thing to be at all. Given the small population of Puerto Rico, it is impressive that they manage to field a team able to compete at this level.
One of the biggest wild cards of this tournament. Because all the players play in a closed-off domestic Cuban league, we have little information about their players. We had a glimpse in the nations league challenger cup, where they came in third place. Miguel Gutierrez, who plays for Italian club Ravenna, was a big part of their offense and was the leading scorer of that tournament with 66 points. Libero Yonder Garcia recently picked up best libero and best receiver honours at the Pan American Cup. This is the youngest team taking part in the World Championships, and Cuba always brings players who can jump high and hit hard. Fielding their best team with Wilfredo Leon, Yoandry Leal, and Robertlandy Simon, Cuba would be the tournament favourites. Without them though, making it through to the 2nd round would be considered a success.