When Japan and Slovenia last met, a full house in Tokyo cheered for the home team in this Olympic qualifier

When Japan and Slovenia last met, a full house in Tokyo cheered for the home team in this Olympic qualifier

Slovenia, Poland and Japan will enter Pool 3 of the men’s Volleyball Nations League 2024 as favourites. At least these are the three teams among the eight to compete in Fukuoka this week that carry a positive balance from competition week one. Brazil, Germany, Bulgaria, Türkiye and Iran are the remaining five to take to the court in the Japanese city from Tuesday to Sunday.

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Slovenia are certainly the team to watch in Fukuoka this week, not only because they are one of the two undefeated teams in the competition after the first week, but also because they are one of the most serious candidates for the remaining vacancies in the men’s Olympic tournament at Paris 2024, based on their position in the FIVB World Ranking, which will eventually determine who gets a ticket to the French capital this summer. Captain Tine Urnaut and his teammates are currently second in the VNL table on a 4-0 win-loss record and 10 points, a point below leaders Italy. They are also the second highest ranked team among the ones without a ticket to Paris, also behind Italy, but well within the qualification zone, some 93 ranking points above the cut-off line. Slovenia will start their Fukuoka campaign against Türkiye on Wednesday, June 5, at 15:30 local time (06:30 UTC). They have to be particularly careful, because a surprising loss to the VNL rookies would cost them between 11.5 and 16.5 World Ranking points. Then, they will meet Brazil, hosts Japan and Bulgaria on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

The world’s number one team, defending VNL titleholders Poland enter competition week two in fifth place, on 3-1 and 9, after suffering a straight-set upset at the hands of Slovenia in their last match in Antalya. They will try to bounce back immediately as they meet Bulgaria on Tuesday at 15:30 (06:30). Matches with Türkiye on Thursday, with Japan on Friday, and with Brazil on Saturday will follow on the European champions’ programme.

Hosts Japan are certainly the ones that will attract the most attention from the volleyball-loving fans in Fukuoka. Also on a 3-1 win-loss record after losing their last match in Rio de Janeiro to Italy, they are in sixth place, just a point below Poland. They will try to get back on the winning track as soon as they open their home campaign on Tuesday and delight the home crowd with victory in the all-Asian clash with Iran at 19:20 (10:20). Their schedule in Fukuoka also features games against Germany on Wednesday, against Poland on Friday and against Slovenia on Saturday.

Brazil are once again among the usual suspects for a leading role in VNL 2024, as in any competition they take part in. However, they finished week one on a balanced record of 2-2 in matches and 9-9 in sets, just above the middle of the table, in eighth place on 6 points and a better point ratio than South American archrivals Argentina. In an effort to tilt that balance to the positive side, Brazil will start their Fukuoka week with a game against Germany in the pool opener on Tuesday at 12:00 (03:00). They will then meet Iran, Slovenia and Poland, in that order, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Brazil’s first opponents Germany are one of the teams already qualified for Paris, but are currently well below the qualification line for the VNL Finals in Poland, in 11th place on 1-3 and 3. To try and change that, they will look for better results in week two – against Brazil on Tuesday, against Japan on Wednesday, against Bulgaria on Thursday, and against Türkiye on Sunday.

The three teams currently standing in the bottom three places of the VNL table will also be in Fukuoka hoping to improve their positions and they will get opportunities to do that in some head-to-head battles with one another. 16th-placed Iran (0-4, 1) will take on both 14th-placed Bulgaria (1-3, 3) on Friday and 15th-placed Türkiye (0-4, 1) on Saturday.

Meanwhile in the Canadian capital Ottawa, the other eight VNL 2024 participants – Argentina, Cuba, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, USA and hosts Canada – will engage in the Pool 4 battles.

The VNL Preliminary Phase features three competition weeks per gender, with each of the 16 teams playing 12 matches. The seven best-ranked national teams in the Preliminary Phase will join hosts Poland for the Finals, which will be held in Lodz from June 27 to 30.

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