Six-packs, squeals and subtlety

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The Independent Online
THE GYM at the American School in London is a temple of sport. Banners hung high on the walls attest to the academy's past achievements, the floor is a multicoloured spaghetti junction of boundary lines, and kids in baseball jackets and caps suck Cokes in the corridors as they consult team lists. The gym is also a mighty dangerous place to be when a volleyball match is in progress.

Especially an international volleyball match. Last Thursday England took on Israel at the American School. Part of the warm-up routine for the game involved the players of both teams bouncing balls off the ground up to roof height - 50ft or so - for catching practice. Eight or ten balls in the air at a time, players running everywhere trying to catch them, and spectators ducking and weaving to avoid the inevitable misfires. It was deafening, what with the thumps of the balls, the squeaks of the shoes, and the squeals of the mostly juvenile audience.

Finally, with no little effort, the officials called the teams to order, and play commenced. The game was a warm-up fixture for this week's Spring Cup in Portugal, and on paper the two teams should have been well matched, both outside the top dozen in the world, but not not far outside.

Volleyball is apparently the third most popular sport in Israel (after football and basketball, if you want to impress your friends) and it's a mystery to us why the game should be so obscure in this country. The England men's first international in the capital for two years attracted a crowd of about 100, most of whom had to go home before the final whistle because it was past their bedtime.

What a shame. The game is terrific. For the uninitiated, six players a side occupy a space about the size of a badminton court with an eight- foot high net. They biff a ball slightly smaller than a football around with the object of getting it to hit the ground inside the opposition's territory: no more than three touches per team before the ball is returned.

How little justice that description does. The subtleties of execution are endless. Serves can be thunderbolts delivered from high in the air with a mighty swing, or sly dinks with the palm towards an empty space. A the net, the "setter" - the key man on the team, whose job is to set the ball up for his team's power hitters - employs maximum guile and sleight of hand to obtain an avenue of opportunity for his side.

England's setter was the captain, Richard Dobell. A chunky figure with spiky blond hair and formidable knee-pads, he led his team from the front, operating in the thick of every rally at the net, calling the numbers of tactical plays, advising his team-mates, cajoling, slapping palms and backs. Dobell's favourite move was to dummy a forward pass and then flick the ball back over his head to the power hitter Matthew Jones, who would arrive from nowhere and dispatch the ball with venom diagonally across Israeli territory.

Unfortunately for Dobell and England, such successful manoeuvres were rare. The Israelis displayed a fine line in team spirit, performing frantic mass congratulation routines every time they won a point - or England lost one. They probably do a high-five routine every time the team minibus passes another vehicle on the motorway.

Diego Posternak was the instigator of most of the merriment. A dead ringer for Art Garfunkel c.1972, Diego had his own catchy refrain, which went something like "Ey-ey-ey-ooop-ah!" England's players must have got fed up with hearing it as the Israelis took the first two sets 16-14 and 17- 15.

The visitors relaxed a bit after that and England managed to nick the third set 15-11, but soon Diego started whooping again and the Israelis wrapped things up 15-4. Jefferson Williams, the England head coach, was philosophical, as England coaches in so many sports often are. "We had winning situations in the first two sets," he sighed, "but we didn't capitalise on them. We have to learn to appreciate the value of a point - too often we were trying to be spectacular." How many England managers can criticise their players for that vice? We can only hope that the volleyball effect is catching.

MUCH stiffening of upper lips in the Epsom area, where the racecourse management has repealed the ancient rule requiring morning dress in the club enclosure on Derby day. The abandonment of the voucher system for entry to the Members' enclosure has also come in for some stick. "By throwing entry open to to anyone on Derby day," a Mr Morris of The Wirral wrote to the Racing Post, "the management will encourage the unruly element." Humbug. In our experience, there's nothing like a spot of fancy dress for bringing on that unruly feeling.

GOOD news for marriage-minded Newcastle United fans: now that it's legal to get married wherever you want, Farideh Bridalwear, of Sacriston, Co Durham, offer a special Toon Army black and white wedding dress. Company spokeswoman Sarah Robey said: "Marrying in a football ground is not normal and deserves a bit of extra special treatment. However," she added, "Sunderland fans would be better off marrying in just white, because red and white is meant to be unlucky on a wedding day." It's not that lucky on Saturdays, either: just ask them at Roker Park.