Lausanne, Switzerland, February 10, 2015 – With more than two decades of experience to call upon, Philippe Blain was one of the key men to steer Poland to a famous FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship gold medal in front of their home fans last September. The Frenchman was Stephane Antiga’s right-hand man throughout the tournament, helping his compatriot in his first coaching role.
Twelve years earlier, however, it was Blain who was the coach and Antiga who was part of the only France team to ever medal at a World Championship as they took bronze in Argentina.
But the shuffle in roles between then and now has not bothered the 54-year-old who was just happy to be part of a winning team as assistant coach.
“When you are coach and players, if you have a good human relationship, one remains the coach and one the player,” Blain says of his working relationship with Antiga. “I collaborated with him in this competition because I think we were complementary to succeed in this challenge.”
Blain is quick to point out that although he may have the experience in terms of years, his younger colleague on the Polish bench knows the sport in his adopted country better than many.
“He has lived in Poland for a long time so he knows the clubs, he knows the players, he knows the culture and he knows the story,” he admits. “He also knows very well the volleyball obviously and he is someone who works a lot.
“I bring the part of experience of what it is like to be a coach. What it is like to anticipate and prepare for what can happen. In that way we are very complementary. For me to be second is no matter. What is important is what we do and I know with Stephane that I can do my best and express what I know in volleyball and what I can bring to the team to be efficient. It was a great collaboration.
“I will add that we also had something great with the staff. You create, like with the players, a team job during the preparation. It was very successful.”
Successful is one way of putting Poland’s journey to only their second World Championship. The 3-1 victory over Brazil in the final was 40 years in the making, coming almost exactly four decades after the country’s last triumph in volleyball’s most prestigious event in 1974.
It was a tough tournament for the hosts, although they were buoyed by a passionate and vibrant crowd across the whole event. This fan factor was not lost on anybody, including the former France coach.
“I was very proud to be part of those opening matches,” Blain says of the opening fixture against Serbia in Warsaw Stadium. “It was something completely incredible. To go into the presentation in front of 70,000 people was amazing. With everyone in white and red, it was really amazing.
“For me it’s something that I dreamed with the French national team for many years. It’s true if you get a coffee there are many people who come and ask for a photo or ask you to sign something but for me it is a pleasure to combine this with the fan.
“As public figures you’re giving something amazing to the people so it’s not only part of the job but part of the life.”
So what does he think of the Polish performance now that the dust has settled on one of the greatest volleyball tournaments of all time? Whilst fans watched the team fall against the United States, which eventually led to them having the unenviable task of taking on three-time winners Brazil and six-time champions Russia in the third round, what was going through Blain’s mind?
“The draw of the third round for us was terrible,” he admits. “With Russia and Brazil, you cross perhaps the second best group of the tournament with all these teams. It was a tough programme.
“But obviously you arrive at the final with a lot of energy because of victory but also because we pushed the whole the team. You may not be in perfect condition for the final but really you have all the energy to take this last victory.
“You know perhaps, in the head, before the semifinal is harder than the final. Because in the final you can lose and not be world champion, but you are in the final, and you are sure to have the medal. The approach of this match was completely different to the approach of the semifinal.
“For the final, I wouldn’t say the players were confident – when you play Brazil you are never confident – but you know that you are on the last step and have one last fight to do.”
The victory has seen volleyball’s popularity in Poland skyrocket further – if that is even possible – with Blain receiving the Polish Gold Cross of Merit, the highest civilian award in Poland.
But despite all of the recognition, there is still the small matter of the 2015 season and – most importantly for Blain, Antiga and Poland – qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The team’s win at the World Championship saw them qualify for the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Cup 2015, offering them a chance at reaching Rio. Poland have never won the World Cup, their best finish coming in the first ever tournament in 1965 where they clinched silver. Blain was coach of France at the 2003 edition where they finished fifth, with Antiga also a part of the team, so he does have experience. However, a lot can change in a short space of time, and that is the attitude he is taking into the upcoming season as Poland look to bolster their squad following some key retirements including World Championship MVP Mariusz Wlazly.
“There are many points right now before we start to prepare for Olympic Qualification,” Blain says. “This is the next goal. Obviously, we have some important players who will have now stopped, and to continue the good success of the World Championship you must create a new group in a short time to win qualification for the Olympic Games.
“We will adapt our programme to integrate the new players but will also evaluate more at the end of the club championship and see what state some players are in. But obviously the first match of the world cup you must be at the top.”