The Netherlands’ Men’s National Volleyball Team were once-upon-a-time among the great programs in the world. They won back-to-back Olympic medals in 1992 (silver) and 1996 (gold), but haven’t qualified for any of the last 3 Olympic tournaments.
In Pool B of this year’s World Championship tournament, however, they’ve become one of the stories of the week, going 3-1 so far, including upset wins over world powers Brazil (3-1) and France (3-2) in their last two matches.
While both opponents are a little vulnerable because of injury, both, on paper, were still big favorites. The Netherlands haven’t beaten France in a World Championship since 1990, and hadn’t beaten them in any tournament since the 2000 World League. It took them 2 hours and 29 minutes to do it, tied for the longest match in World Championship history, but a win counts the same no matter how long it takes.
The upset over Brazil was even more historic: the last time the Dutch men beat Brazil was in 1966 at the Czechoslovakian-hosted World Championships. Czechoslovakia isn’t even a country any more.
So what was the harbinger of this success? The team was only 14th at last year’s European Championship, and they didn’t qualify for this year’s Nations League. They didn’t even start out that will, being swept by Canada in their opener.
A 3rd-set switch seemed to trigger the team, including inserting Wessel Keemink (whose future once appeared to be on the beach) at setter over the more experienced van Haarlem, though Van Haarlem played the entirety of the upset over Brazil, where the team hit better than 50%.
Really, the Dutch have excelled with a number of lineups. While former captain Jasper Diefenbach is a sentimental favorite in the middle as his last tournament as a professional, the Dutch have excelled with Michael Parkinson and Thomas Koelewijn in the middle (though Diefenbach did lead the team in blocks in the loss to Canada with 3). That’s at best a correlation though (he didn’t play in the win against Brazil, and played only the two opening losing sets against France).
Perhaps all of these trails lead to the challenging run of friendlies that the team played in the run-up to the tournament, including against World Championship participants Belgium, Argentina, Italy, and…France and Brazil, all of whom the team traveled to play.
This, combined with the willingness of Dutch coach Gido Vermeulen to change what isn’t working, has led to a 2nd-place position in Pool B. And those losses by Brazil and France won’t be wiped away either: in this year’s format, preliminary match results carry through to the 2nd round. There, teams are put into 4 pools of 4 (as things stand, the Netherlands would be matched with Pool A winners Italy, Pool C 3rd-place Russia, and Pool D 4th-place Finland). Recent results aside, that would be a brutal pool to win, with Italy in front of a home crowd and Russia as the defending Nations League champions, but with 4 preliminary wins (presuming they’re able to beat Egypt on Monday) under their belts, they would have a puncher’s chance at finishing as one of the top 2 2nd-place teams that will also advance to the Final 6.
It might take one more big upset to get there, but the Dutch look like they’ll be ready.