Volleyball: British team going Dutch for 2012

How best to prepare the fledgling British volleyball team for the heat of Olympic competition in 2012? By standing in for a club in the Netherlands, of course, and competing in their league, as Mike Rowbottom discovers in Amstelveen
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The Independent Online

Amstelveen. To you and me, it may mean lager. To the wider population of the Netherlands it equates to dullness – to the point, indeed, where it has been voted the most depressing place in the country. But to a group of ferociously focused British sportsmen Amstelveen currently means ambition – and Olympic ambition at that.

Since September of last year, the newly established Great Britain volleyball squad, guided by the Dutch coach Harry Brokking, have been taking part in what appears on the face of it a bizarre experiment by effectively standing in for Martinus, a team in the Dutch Pro A League, in order to gain experience that will help them make an honourable showing when the Games come to London in 2012.

Brokking, a hugely successful coach at club and national level, was appointed in April last year to guide the fortunes of a team who have been created to make the most of the automatic qualifying spot secured by London's successful bid for the 2012 Games.

But when Brokking, who steered the Dutch team to fifth in the 1988 Olympics, arrived in England, no one would have predicted the singular course which the domestic sport was about to take – through a spark of inspiration he himself provided.

"When I was young, many years ago, I always played for Martinus so I know everyone here and the people here know me," Brokking recalled. "When I was in Holland last May the president of the club invited me to a club barbecue and told me about the problems they had because they couldn't find a new sponsor, which meant they couldn't sign any players and they were going to have to drop out of the league and lose their place.

"I said it as a joke almost, but I asked him – 'Why don't you take my team? There is no need to pay me because I am paid by the British federation. And my players are all funded by UK Sport. All you would need to do would be to take care of their housing.'

"At first he said, 'No, it wouldn't work'. But a few weeks later he came back to me and said the club would like to talk to the British federation..."

While the Martinus women have established themselves, as you might expect, at the top end of their league, the men have found life significantly harder, although the ominous possibility that they might go the entire season without a win has been avoided by a sequence of more hopeful performances which leaves their current record looking like this: played 24, won 3, lost 21. With only four matches remaining, two of which are against the leading clubs, it appears unlikely that Martinus/GB will be able to avoid finishing plumb last in the league. But here's the beauty of it – it doesn't really matter.

Ben Pipes, the British captain, is one of the crowd favourites at the Bankras Sports Centre. The 21-year-old from Hull played professionally at the age of 18 in Spain, and has since spent a season with the Swedish champions, Hylte Volley, as well as having trials with the top Italian club, Sisley Treviso.

Pipes plans to return and make his mark in Italy after this season is over, but his Olympic ambitions remain strong and he understands the logic of the process in which he and his colleagues are involved.

"It was strange coming out here because we didn't know what to expect," Pipes said. "But we were made to feel at home right from the start. It helped that so many people in the Dutch game and in the Martinus club knew Harry so well. The supporters got behind us straight away – they understand why we are here and what we are striving for. They know how much it means to compete in the Olympics.

"Basically, all of us out here are just eating, sleeping and playing volleyball. We get up at eight and we are not back again until nine in the evening. By that time you are so tired all you want to do is grab something to eat and crash out.

"All of us are aiming for London 2012, although we know that the Lottery funding is beginning to work for a lot of younger players, and I think the acceleration of talent becoming available is going to be just enormous. None of us out here have booked our tickets for London yet."

Whoever eventually makes that trip to London will be a high-profile representative in a sport that is massively, globally popular. In terms of participation, volleyball is reckoned to be the third most popular sport in the world, with over 500 million players. That standing was reflected by the viewing figures at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where volleyball – in which Brazil won the men's team gold on and off the beach, China the women's team gold and the United States the women's beach title – earned the highest TV viewing figures, ahead of aquatics, basketball and athletics, and also generated the greatest ticket sales.

Britain's beach volleyball pairing of Lucy Boulton and Denise Johns are in the world top 40 and so within striking distance of earning a place at this summer's Olympics, although they will need to move into the world's top 20 by July to do so.

For the men's team, all Olympic ambition lies four years hence. And for half of the squad of 15 players, their current struggle at the base of Mount Olympus has located them within Martinus House, a converted office block which offers team members what Brokking describes as a "student-type accommodation" from which to base their labours. But the facilities within the House give the lie to the Netherlands verdict on Amstelveen. The boys have got a TV in there. And a dartboard. What more could one ask?

Well, perhaps a dishwasher would be a suitable request, as, according to one squad member, Chris Lamont, not a lot of plates get washed once everyone has piled in exhausted after a day's Olympic striving.

Such domestic concerns are the least of the team's concerns, however, as Brokking acknowledges. "It is a difficult time for the players because they are having to learn as they play, and the teams here really want to beat them because they see them as Great Britain rather than Martinus," he said. "People have always wanted to beat Martinus because they have been champions so often. They have a special position within the sport in this country. So in a way the British players have inherited a reputation and it has been a very big task for them."

Brokking estimates that the Dutch game is in the second rank within the sport's European hotbed along with Germany and Belgium, just behind Russia, Italy, Poland and France. "The standard of play in Holland is quite high," he said, "and although the players have worked hard, they have lost most of their matches. When that happens it is hard for players to see how they are improving. We only see the day-to-day work as it goes on. But people who come out from England to see them are seeing tremendous progress since the players left to come here.

"We want to bring the level of players up, and we would like to see maybe six, seven or eight of this squad develop. Here in Holland, they have the right to make mistakes while they are learning."

They are, nevertheless, learning in the public eye. Although home matches normally attract crowds of between 200 and 300, highlights of Dutch League games feature regularly on national TV in the same fashion that football in this country is televised on Match of the Day.

Brokking concedes that having the most traditional of Dutch clubs suddenly peopled with Brits took a bit of getting used to for home supporters. But only a little bit. "The supporters soon really considered them as Martinus and didn't see them as the GB team," Brokking said. "It is a dream to be in the Olympics. We believe we can prepare our team so that by the time the Games come around we can be competitive. But we are going to need the four years to achieve this. We have a lot of talent in this group. How many of these players can be there in London 2012 is difficult to say. But they all have the same dream – they want to be in the Olympics. That is what they are working for."

Once the Dutch season finishes next month, the team will return to Sheffield to set up camp within the confines of the English Institute of Sport, where they will spend a minimum of four hours a day preparing for their European Championship qualifying match against Denmark.

Meanwhile they are busy winning over Dutch hearts and minds. Recent press reports in the Netherlands have indicated they may be succeeding. "They will certainly not be donkeys in 2012," wrote one observer. "They play well and jump delightfully." That will do nicely for now.