There was significance in the presence of an official from the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) on stage, Luis Alexandre, the director of the Asia and Oceania sector of the world body no less. And when invited to talk, there was even greater importance in his opening message.
“First of all,” he said, looking towards the members of the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI), “welcome back.”
It was a mighty breakthrough for the domestic association that had been reeling under international suspension due to political infighting, but had now been ratified by the world body of the sport. And Alexandre’s greeting came on the day the VFI launched the Pro Volleyball League— the sport’s own glitzy competition.
“It’s been very painful for me personally, these last two years,” says VFI secretary general Ramavtar Singh Jhakar. “Now the federation is clear, we have a President of the federation with a mind for the game. Now we can look toward the league.”
Slated to be held in Kochi and Chennai next February, the marquee tournament is a six-franchise event that involves a round robin stage, with the top four teams qualifying for the semifinals. A host of international stars are expected to be participating for the tournament along with the top Indian spikers. The team composition meanwhile will be decided in an auction in New Delhi in December, with teams holding a purse of Rs 75 lakh.
The launch of the marquee event puts volleyball on the growing list of sports that have started to don cash-rich leagues of their own. Volleyball’s rendition of the ‘glamour league’ though marks the sudden turnaround for the sport the country – especially considering that the VFI’s suspension had not been completely lifted till just under a fortnight ago.
In May, the FIVB had provisionally lifted the ban, giving the VFI a six-month deadline to rectify its position. “I had attended a meeting at the FIVB congress in Mexico on November 15,” Jhakar explains. “I met with the president and all the executive members of the board. And since Luis Alexandre is here as observer, it means everything has gone smoothly and is cleared.”
Quest to improve rankings
Now that the legitimacy has come, the Indian national teams will have to undertake the task of improving the ranking that has dropped drastically. When the ban was imposed, the men’s team was ranked 39th and the women’s team 55th.
As per the rankings released on October 1, the men stand at a joint 131 and the women at joint 117. “The difference between international volleyball and Indian volleyball is not that much, if you compare it to international football and Indian football,” says Joy Bhattacharjya, CEO of PVL. “Our attackers are considered among the best in Asia. It’s just that because of the ban we haven’t managed to play much.”
For the opening season, the organisers have decided to hold the tournament in two of India’s biggest hubs for the sport. The eventual target is to bring the national teams back to the same calibre it used to be at, and even surpass it.
The 20-day event is a small step in that direction. For the FIVB though, having India back is the bigger achievement. “Everything that had happened in the past has been (resolved) in the proper way,” Alexandre says. “The Congress and the board of administrators voted to have India back, and that for us is a pleasure.”