No one had given India a ghost of a chance at the start of the tournament. Even the most optimistic of fans had thought coach MH Kumara and his boys would at best make the second stage of the preliminary round of the men’s U-21 World Volleyball Championship in Pune.
But on Thursday, Indian belied expectations to book a historic semifinal berth, beating Belgium 3-2 in a pulsating five-set thriller in nearly two hours at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, Balewadi.
India came back strongly after losing the first set to register an 18-25, 25-19, 25-16, 22-25, 15-11 victory that had the 3,750-odd spectators in the hall erupting in joy.
Though India are 10th in the FIVB world rankings for junior men, hopes were not very high as the top eight team were playing in Pune. There were also a number of strong floaters like Cuba and former champions Poland. India had stunned Russia on Tuesday but losing to Argentina on Wednesday made this a must-win tie. Belgium are ranked 21st in the world but had beaten world No 2 Argentina on Tuesday.
Attackers Gurinder Singh and Naveen Raja did the star turn once again, scoring a big chunk of points as the hosts rode the wave to victory. Gurinder top-scored with 26 points while Raja contributed 20. The hosts also made the most of the 32 errors committed by Belgium. Though Belgium narrowly outscored India in terms of attack (60-59) and block (14-11), the high number of errors they committed (32-19) made the difference.
Kumara hailed team spirit and the hard work of his players. “The boys played an excellent game. They were calm, composed and confident. In fact, I was nervous today. In comparison to the facilities foreign teams have, we are nowhere close but we have come a long way even with our desi style of coaching. I am confident that the boys will play even better in the coming games and all credit goes to them.”
India finished second in Pool E behind Argentina and will meet Pool F toppers and defending champions Brazil in the first semifinal on Saturday. Argentina take on Cuba in the other semifinal. Meanwhile, the Volleyball Federation of India president, B Sivanthi Adityan, has announced a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh for the team.