Melissa Vargas in action at the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix in 2014
Lausanne, Switzerland, June 9, 2015 - Cuba’s female volleyball stars have high hopes that the arrival on the international scene of a 15-year-old will herald a return to former glory.
Melissa Vargas has been selected in the 25-woman squad for the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix. Last year, the young hitter guided Cuba to the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Championship Italy 2014, courtesy of a number of outstanding displays in the qualifying tournament, which saw her named MVP. Unfortunately the team then crashed out of the World Championship with five defeats.
This year, it is the turn of new Cuba coach Roberto Garcia Garcia to try his luck – with a squad full of talented youngsters. Cuba are playing in Group 3 of the World Grand Prix with Algeria, Australia, newcomers Colombia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mexico and Peru.
The oldest player in the Cuban squad is 23. The youngest – Ailama Cese Montalvo – was actually born in this millennium and is just 14 years old. It is a phase of complete rebuilding for the team once known as the “Morenas del Caribe”, who were Olympic champions in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, as well as world champions in 1978, 1994 and 1998.
Players like Regla Torres, who was voted “Best Female Player of the 20th Century” by the FIVB in 2001, Mireya Luis and Yumilka Ruiz are still household names for millions of volleyball fans around the world. Cuba’s powerful ladies dominated the volleyball scene for almost an entire decade, but little of the glamour of yesteryear remains. After the last title at the FIVB Volleyball World Championships in 1998, they have found themselves in a downward spiral: fifth in 2002, seventh in 2006, twelfth in 2010, and 21st in 2014. Cuba did not even participate in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Peru was another great volleyball nation at one time. Silver at the World Championships in 1982 and bronze four years later were celebrated throughout the entire country. Brazilian coach Mauro Marasciulo is now in charge of rebuilding the team, which is based around experienced captain Martha Uribe and a host of young players.
Australia coach Mark Barnard is also putting his faith in talented young players. “We’ve got a lot of fresh new faces here, which is exciting,” said Barnard. Australia will stage the Group 3 Finals of the FIVB World Grand Prix in the capital Canberra in July. As hosts, they are guaranteed one of the four places in the finals, the first time their women’s team will be playing a big tournament on home soil since the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. “I told some of these girls that they were just three years old the last time Australia played at home,” said Barnard. “It’s important for the exposure of our sport, the women’s side, for them to be seen playing in Australia. I’m hoping this will be a turnaround for the women’s programme as we build towards 2020.”
Two of the Volleyroos’ most experienced players, Tara West and Olivia Orchard, have retired this year.
The Kenyan squad consists exclusively of players from top clubs Kenya Prisons and Kenya Pipeline. The second African nation in the tournament, Algeria, will be led by 1.58-metre tall captain Salima Hammouche. The newcomers from Colombia go into their World Grand Prix adventure with coach Eduardo Guillaume. The best-known player in the squad is Madelaynne Montaño, who plies her trade at Rabita Baku.
The 23rd edition of the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix will run from June 26 to August 1, 2015 with 28 teams in three groups. The Group 1 Finals will take place in Omaha, USA from July 22-26. Poland will host the Group 2 Finals from July 31 to August 1, while the Group 3 Finals will take place in Australia from July 10-12.
The FIVB World Grand Prix has grown spectacularly since its first edition in 1993, when it featured just eight teams. The increase in the number of participating teams brings with it an increased level of competition and has also helped to spread the World Grand Prix to new territories around the world.