The history of the FIVB Volleyball World Cup

Through the years, the FIVB World Cup has seen a change in its format as well as the leading forces in the sport.

Adding a competitive edge to an already popular leisure activity helped volleyball spread to all corners of the world.

The establishment of the international governing body for volleyball, FIVB, in 1947, saw the sport's appeal go global.

The FIVB held the first FIVB World Championship in Czechoslovakia in 1949, which the Soviet Union won. Post the second edition of the tournament in 1952, the FIVB has held the competition every four years. With volleyball officially entering the Olympics in 1964, the FIVB had two premier competitions at a two-year gap.

To fill the void between those two tournaments, the FIVB planned to introduce another premier competition with fewer entries, and thus, in 1965 the FIVB Volleyball World Cup was born.

The Volleyball World Cup has been held quadrennially since 1965 for men and 1973 for women, with the exception of the 1991 edition which was held after a gap of two years after the preceding edition.

Initially, the FIVB World Cup had a new host nation for each edition of the competition, however, the tournament has been held exclusively in Japan, for both men and women, since 1977.

With four and three gold medals, respectively, the Soviet Union and Brazil have been the most dominant nations in the FIVB Men’s World Cup whereas China, with their five victories, and Cuba, with four, have ruled the roost in FIVB Women’s World Cup.

Unique format and Olympic qualification

Unlike counterparts like the FIFA World Cup and the FIBA Basketball World Cup, the FIVB World Cup does not have a knockout phase and is conducted entirely in a round-robin format.

The 12 national teams taking part in the FIVB World Cup are split into two pools and the competition is held over a two-week period. In the first week, the teams play five intra-pool matches while in the second they compete in six inter-pool matches.

If a team wins a match in three or four sets, they are awarded three points for their victory, however, if a match ends up being a five-setter, the victor is awarded two points while the losing team also gets one.

The team heading the points tally after 11 matches is crowned FIVB World Cup winners and is granted automatic qualification to the subsequent Olympic Games along with the team that finishes runners-up.

If two teams are level on points after 11 matches, FIVB has established three tiebreakers to decide the winner.

The first is set quotient - which is the number of sets won divided by the number of sets lost. If the two teams leading the points table also end up having the same set quotient, the second tiebreaker kicks in which is the points quotient (points scored divided by points conceded).

If the two are level on points after the first two tiebreakers, the winner of the match between the two during the round-robin stage is crowned the FIVB World Champion.

History of the Men’s Volleyball World Cup

The reign of the Soviet Union

Eleven teams participated in the inaugural edition of FIVB Men’s World Cup held in Poland in 1965.

Reigning Olympic champions Soviet Union entered the competition as favourites to win the title and they did not disappoint, winning seven of their eight matches to win the first-ever FIVB Men’s World Cup.

The Soviet Union remained the force to be reckoned with in men’s volleyball till the country’s dissolution in 1991.

At the 1969 volleyball men’s World Cup in East Germany, the Soviet Union added a bronze medal to their gold from the inaugural edition and were only beaten by eventual champions and host country East Germany and silver-medallists Japan.

The Soviet Union had to wait eight years to have another shot at reclaiming their crown, after the 1973 FIVB volleyball men’s World Cup that was scheduled to be held in Montevideo, Uruguay fell through. Japan took over as hosts in 1977 and has been the home of the volleyball World Cup ever since.

At Montreal 1976 Olympics, Poland had upstaged the Soviet Union in the men’s volleyball tournament final in a five-set thriller and heading into the 1977 FIVB men’s volleyball World Cup, the two teams were touted as heavy favourites to win the crown.

The Soviet Union lost just one match in the tournament and won their second FIVB World Cup. At the 1981 edition, led by Vyacheslav Zaytsev, the Soviet Union won all seven matches and defended their FIVB World Cup crown, winning it for the third time.

A defeat to eventual champions, the Karch Kiraly-led United States in a five-setter and Czechoslovakia meant that the Soviet Union had to settle for silver in the 1985 FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Cup. Cuba and Italy beat the Soviet Union at the 1989 FIVB Men’s volleyball World Cup meaning that the three-time champions had to settle for a third-place finish.

The Soviet Union’s foothold on the game was seemingly slipping, however, those doubts were laid to rest at the 1991 FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Cup, when 23-year-old Dmitry Fomin guided the nation to their fourth World Cup gold in what would prove to be their final appearance as the USSR.

The country missed the 1995 FIVB World Cup altogether and returned in the 1999 edition as Russia. Led by tournament MVP Roman Yakovlev, they finished with a record of nine wins and two defeats and won the country’s fifth FIVB Men’s volleyball World Cup crown.

The rise of Brazil in the 21st Century

With just two bronze medals at the 1981 and 1995 FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Cup, Brazil was not quite a superpower in the sport. However, that changed in the new millennium.

They kickstarted it by winning the 2002 World Championship and came into the 2003 FIVB Men’s volleyball World Cup as the favourites. The South Americans lived up to their billing and won the competition undefeated to capture their first World Cup. The following year, they even bagged a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.

As a result, they arrived in Japan for the 2007 FIVB Men’s World Cup as the reigning Olympic, South American and World Cup winners and were touted the favourites to win it all.

However, the United States humbled them in straight sets in their opener. Brazil, though, regrouped to win the next 10 games and emulate Soviet Union in being the only teams to defend their FIVB World Cup crown.

Russia and the United States won the 2011 and 2015 FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Cup, respectively, and Brazil had to settle for bronze at the 2011 edition.

Brazil parted ways with coach Bernardo Rezende in 2017, ending a 17-year run of success, after the country’s volleyball triumph at Rio 2016.

Former player Renan Dal Zotto took over the reign, and in his first FIVB men’s World Cup in-charge, he coached his nation to a perfect 11-0 record and helped them capture their third World Cup in 2019.

History of the Women’s Volleyball World Cup

China’s command in the early years

Like their male counterparts, the Soviet Union women’s volleyball team won the inaugural FIVB Volleyball World Cup in 1973, upstaging Japan in the final in straight sets.

In the 1977 edition in Japan, the Chinese women’s volleyball team made its debut in the FIVB Women’s World Cup and finished top of their pool, beating all three teams. However, they had to settle for fourth place after losing out on the bronze medal on set quotient to South Korea.

The signs were promising though, as China was the only team to beat eventual champions Japan at the 1977 FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Cup.

At the 1981 FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Cup, the Chinese women’s volleyball team was the cream of the crop. Led by captain and setter Sun Jinfang, China were a class above the rest, winning all seven matches at the tournament and dropping just four sets on route to their maiden FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Cup.

Current Chinese women’s volleyball team coach and a part of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, Lang Ping, who was also a part of the victorious 1981 squad took over the reign of the captaincy and led China to another perfect campaign at the FIVB Women’s World Cup. She was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

China were thoroughly impressive throughout the competition, dropping just one set in the tournament, which happened against silver medallist Cuba.

Cuba’s unprecedented run at the Women’s World Cup

The Cuban women’s volleyball team had two silver medal finishes through the first four editions of the FIVB Women’s World Cup.

However, led by Mireya Luis, who was named tournament MVP, and deputy Magaly Carvajal, Cuba finally managed to capture gold at the FIVB Women’s World Cup in 1989 and embarked on a run unlike any other in volleyball history.

Seven players from the victorious 1991 squad travelled to Japan for the 1991 FIVB Women’s World Cup and defended their crown to become only the third volleyball team in history to win two straight FIVB Women’s World Cup.

Luis and Carvajal returned and continued to stay the cornerstones of the team and led Cuba to an unprecedented third FIVB Women’s World Cup in 1995. Luis became the first player to win two MVP awards.

The 12-team 1999 FIVB Women’s World Cup saw Cuba continue its foothold in the sport. Coach Antonio Perdomo led his side to a fourth straight FIVB Women’s World Cup title, capping off one of the most successful runs in team sports history.

Chinese and Italian reign in the new millennium

Troubles back home in Cuba led to the end of the Cuban women’s volleyball team’s grip in the sport and China seized the opportunity to add a third FIVB World Cup title to their name in 2003.

The mid-2000s saw the rise of a new nation at the top of the women’s volleyball stage. Italy, a country that had never won a World Cup medal, won the 2007 as well the 2011 FIVB Women’s World Cup.

Led by stand-out blocker Simona Gioli, the Italians won all but one of their 22 matches at the 2007 and 2011 edition of the FIVB Women’s World Cup.  

Led by outside hitter Zhu Ting, the Chinese women’s volleyball team embarked on another spell of success in the sport, winning the 2015 and 2019 FIVB Women’s World Cup as well as the gold medal at Rio 2016.

Zhu Ting was named the Most Valuable Player in both, the 2015 and 2019 editions of the FIVB Women’s World Cup and is the only women, alongside Cuba’s Mireya Luis in the sport’s history to have won the award twice.

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