Plovdiv, Bulgaria, September 9, 2016. This is the second time in history the Final Round of a men’s U20 European Championship takes place in Bulgaria. Exactly 30 years ago the 1986 junior men’s European champion in Volleyball was determined in the city of Pazardzhik, some 30 km away from Plovdiv, where the 2016 title-holder is about to emerge. To the surprise of many back then, it was hosts Bulgaria who managed to claim the gold medals, their only title in the history of the competition to date.
Click here for a live photo gallery from the last two competition days in Plovdiv.
Nikolai Dankinov (far left on the top photo after scoring Bulgaria's last point in Pazardzhik) was one of the young Bulgarian heroes from 1986 who were on coach Brunko Iliev’s squad and pleased the home fans with their feat. 30 years later he shares his memories and draws some parallels to what is happening nowadays at the Final Round of the 2016 CEV U20 Volleyball European Championship - Men.
“The first story that comes to mind is from our first training camp at the beginning of the summer in Varna,” Dankinov, who is now a 49-year-old businessman in the field of sportswear, starts his tales. “We sneaked out every night and returned in the morning and it was strange that nobody stopped us. Our coach Brunko Iliev caught us on the very last night of the camp. Later on he told us, ‘if you think I did not know you were gone every night, you are quite mistaken. I just let you enjoy a few days of rest before all the hard work ahead of us.’”
The first friendly tournament that the Bulgarian team had to play during the preparation period was in Hungary. “We were beaten by everybody there, including the Netherlands who would later be our toughest rival at the European Championship, and we finished next to last. When we returned from Hungary, the federation had obviously lost faith in us and they jokingly told us they would erect a monument of us if we made the top six in Pazardzhik.”
But this was only the beginning. Under the strict supervision of coach Brunko Iliev, the young Lions’ squad engaged in two and a half months of tough training. When they started winning friendly matches and tournaments, they started pumping themselves up that they could eventually win the European Championship as well.
Photo: Bulgaria’s captain Tsvetan Todorov with the 1986 U20 European trophy; Romania celebrate silver and the Federal Republic of Germany claim the bronze
“We became so synchronized on the court that even with our eyes covered we would not have a problem to find each other with the ball. Outside the court we were all very difficult characters, but on the court we were as fierce and passionate as dogs. Maybe we weren’t friends outside the volleyball hall, but on the court we never had any fights with each other and everyone was helping the team. We had a great team leader, Nayden Naydenov, who was a unique player and deservedly became the MVP of the European Championship.”
Nikolai Dankinov remembers very well the incredible atmosphere at the competition hall in Pazardzhik as well as the difficult conditions they had to play in back in the old days. “Our matches always started at 19:30, but by 14:00 the tribunes were already completely packed with spectators. The outside temperatures in August ran as high as 38 degrees, but inside the hall it felt like 50-60. One could not breathe normally... Our most difficult match was against the Netherlands. We beat West Germany by 3-2 and the Netherlands by 3-1, but the duel with the Dutch was the toughest one for us.”
“It was a different game back then - rules, organisation, statistics, everything... I see that now they have these big team delegations. We only had a head coach, an assistant coach and occasionally a doctor. But the federation was taking very good care of us,” reminisces Dankinov.
But the major difference between the team from 1986 and today’s Bulgarian squad, according to him, is the experience. “Everyone on our team was playing in the senior men’s teams of their clubs. The guys that are playing now are obviously very good and talented, but due to lack of experience they make mistakes in the important moments. They need to have a little more self-confidence when they come out on the court.”
Many of the players who took part in the 1986 Junior European Championship later grew to become big names on the international Volleyball stage. Nikolai Dankinov mentions the names of Italy’s Lorenzo Bernardi and Netherlands’ Ron Zwerwer among the many bright stars in the making who played in Pazardzhik as teenagers, and hopes that this will also be the case with many of the young hopefuls leaving their hearts on the courts in Varna and Plovdiv 30 years later.
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