Bulgaria’s brilliant defence snuffed out Great Britain’s men’s volleyball hopes of marking their Olympic debut as they recorded a 3-0 win at Earls Court.
The world number nines formed a near-impenetrable line at the net, preventing Harry Brokking’s big-hitters from ever being able to get their side in front. They trailed from the first point and their go-to man Dami Bakare was shut down completely to the point that his lack of confidence saw him make three successive third-set errors that turned an 13-9 advantage into a 16-15 deficit.
The 23-year-old was not alone in being locked down by Bulgaria, though, with only the outstanding Mark Plotyczer able to play with any freedom as Britain saw one of the games they had targeted to win slip away from them 25-18 25-20 26-24. Neither side could get a jump on the other over the opening points, before Bulgaria pulled 8-4 clear, albeit with the help of a terrible decision against Bakare when a thunderous spike was called out, with replays indicating it was in by a foot. Brokking called a time-out as a result of the mini slump as it was impossible for Britain to get a roll going on their own serve.
That all changed when Nathan French got the ball in his hands and a run of four successive points brought the hosts back in to it at 11-13. But Vladimir Nikolov expertly shut down Bakare – normally Britain’s most potent weapon – and although Plotyczer did have some success up high, Bulgaria were always in control thanks to their early burst and took the set 25-18.
The second started in identical fashion, with Britain holding their own on the initial points before Bulgaria found a way to ease out to 8-4, with Brokking calling another time-out. GB came back to within two points at 9-11 – captain Ben Pipes sending down an ace – but with Todor Skrimov unplayable above the net, the pull away eventually came to 15-20 and the set was then secured.
In the thrid set, five-all quickly became 11-7 as Bakare showed soft hands to tip a winner and when French shut down Skrimov at the net, the tide appeared to be changing slightly. It was not to be, though, and three Bakare errors in a row – one unforgivable when he and Dan Hunter went for the same ball – put Bulgaria back ahead at 16-15.
The momentum was quickly back with Britain, Plotyczer spiking to 23-21, but the see-saw nature of the set meant that he was soon having to block to save match point. A long Mark McGivern serve would give Bulgaria another, though, and they took it this time despite some brilliant defence from Hunter.
Ben PIPES (GBR captain)
On the match result:
“Personally I couldn’t find my rhythm early on. I let the team down in the first set. We started playing our game in the third set. Our reception was good and our blocking was OK.”
On the atmosphere inside Earls Court:
“I don’t think I was nervous (at the start) – everybody was pumped.”
“The culture that’s been drilled into them in their upbringing keeps them going.”
On the early start time:
“We got up at 5am and have done for the last few days. We had a very light training session at 05:20 this morning, but you could open the door and it could be morning or midnight – we adapted to it.”
On the next match against Australia on Tuesday 31 July:
“It’s the nature of the tournament. There’s no time to cry or celebrate – we’ve got to keep going.”
Dami BAKARE (GBR)
On his first match at the Olympics Games:
“I absolutely loved it. I had to contain myself and keep my head low. As soon as the game starts it is us on the ball. We talked in the locker room, the GB team is going to make history today. The first ever GB Olympic volleyball team. We know we can compete, we want to prove it. We have growing confidence.”
On Bulgaria’s blocks:
“We handled it OK but they had their hand on everything.”
On the third set they nearly won:
“We need to believe we can finish it. Your heart is pounding. We lost today and the crowd was great. Imagine how that would have been if we had won.”
On the next match against Australia:
“It should be a good game, we know many of the players. It will be very noisy.”
Photos courtesy of FIVB