The Polish men’s volleyball team, ranked number 2 in the world, did not go to the Olympics to win the gold.
They prepared hard for it, practiced for months for the opportunity to compete against the best in the global stage, and “scrimmaged” with high-caliber teams during the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Men’s Nation League in Italy held between May 28 to June 27 to measure their preparedness for the Olympics.
Despite the preparations, coach Vital Henen’s had set a modest Olympic goal for him and his team. This was to win the Olympic quarterfinals, enter the medal round, and end the curse of getting stuck in this phase in the last four staging of the Olympics. “The most important goal is to break the curse and the rest will be a good addition,” said coach Henen, who steered the same team to win the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship.
The curse had been with them since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, 2008 in Beijing, 2012 London, and 2016 Rio de Janeiro, where they could not proceed to the semifinals.
After an impressive run in the qualifying rounds and round of 16, this year’s Olympics appeared promising, with team Poland topping Pool A of the preliminary round with wins over Italy, Japan, Canada, and Venezuela, and an upset loss to Iran.
Poland was heavily favored in its quarter-final faceoff against France, which barely made the cut with an unremarkable 2-3 win-loss record in Pool B. One could argue it was a risk-free bet like the zakład bez ryzyka offers popular in Poland.
As it turned out, however, the curse continues in Tokyo, with the Polish team getting stuck again in the quarterfinals. It narrowly missed the boat to the semis after a heart-breaking loss to eventual gold medalist France in five excruciating sets, 21-25; 25-22; 21-25; 25-21; 15-9.
A victory over France would have meant bronze for the team, a good enough addition, but, nay, the stars did not align for them.
Although the statement that his team was going to the Olympics not to win the gold was calculated to manage expectations, coach Henan was, in fact, on course for the gold if his team had overcome France in the quarterfinals. But while the odds were in their favor, the stars were not.
After all, Poland had prepared long and hard for the Olympics, marked with a pre-Olympic silver finish in the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Championship where Polish smasher Bartosz Kurek shared the MVP honors with Brazil’s Wallace de Souza. Unlike Poland, Brazil advanced to the semis but lost against Asian powerhouse China in the Quadrennial Games.
Despite Poland’s loss, coach Vital Henen would not offer any excuses, except to say “that’s life and it’s not always about winning.”
The 52-year-old former Belgian volleyball star and coach believes that volleyball, like life, is not always about winning. “How can you improve if you’re always winning,” he reasoned. “Sometimes, we gain something more by losing.”
Perhaps, he’s up for something more at the end of his career as head coach of the Poland national volleyball team.
After leading this team to a world championship in 2018 and two bronze medal finishes at the European Volleyball Championship, but failing in the Tokyo Olympics, coach Henen announced that he will no longer be head coach for Poland.
The suddenness of the announcement is part of the deal he signed four years ago with the Polish Volleyball Federation (PZPS) that he could be replaced anytime.
He bid his players goodbye right after their bronze medal victory over Serbia at the end of the European Volleyball championship season in September 2021. “I’ve never cried so much, and saw many others crying at the end of a season,” he said in his social media post.