The odds will be stacked against India when they take on defending champions Brazil in the semi-finals of the men’s U-21 Volleyball Championship at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune on Saturday.
Brazil have won the title thrice and are the only unbeaten team in this tournament. Of the 20 sets they have played in two rounds, they have lost only two. India are the outsiders, having never qualified for the medal round in four previous attempts. They needed 24 sets to reach the last four, of which they lost 10. But this Indian team doesn’t care about reputation and has actually demolished big names like Russia, USA and Belgium on their way to the semi-finals.
“We are the underdogs and have everything to gain on Saturday. No one had given us a chance but we managed to reach the semi-final. So we are going to go there and play our natural game against Brazil,” coach M.H. Kumara told Hindustan Times on Friday.
“Whether it is the Youth, Junior or Senior level, they have played many finals. My boys lack that experience but this bunch is extremely confident in its abilities and are not afraid to take on anyone - this is our strength,” said Kumara.
Kumara will be banking on his two stars - Gurinder Singh and Naveen Raja - to come good once again. Gurinder and Naveen are placed fourth and fifth in the list of scorers with 103 and 101 points, respectively. Naveen is also the best server of this tournament so far. With skipper Mandeep Singh acting as a perfect foil to his two exuberant colleagues, India will hope to capitalise on their allround game.
“India is a very strong team and we will be cautious against them,” said Brazil coach Percy Oncken. “We have studied them with 5-6 other teams and have worked out our strategy. We have to make the most of our chances,” he said. Brazil will be guarding against getting affected by the strong support from the vociferous home crowd.
Kumara will have to keep an eye on Brazilian attacker Mauricio Silva and Renan Buiatti, who is the top blocker in the tournament having earned 24 points with superb blocks. The Indians will have to be on their toes to meet their challenge.
The other semi-final will pit South American champions Argentina against Cuba, but all eyes on Saturday will be on the clash pitting the hosts against the reigning champions.
There was bad news on the eve of the match with Gurinder catching fever and being put on drip. While hoping that the attacker will recover in time, Kumara took his boys to some local temples and a Gurdwara on Friday evening. They need the Almighty by their side on the big day.