'Hammer' sparks revival in popular sport

11:37, January 13, 2010      

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The performance of China's women's volleyball team last year, under the guidance of new coach Cai Bin, let the side's legions of fans down.

However, the comeback of legendary coach Lang Ping provided a massive boost to the domestic league.

The season started with the greatly-anticipated appointment of the head coach of the national squad in March. Instead of highly-favored Chen Zhonghe, who led the team to the title at the 2003 World Cup and the 2004 Athens Games and a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, 43-year-old Cai was selected. Cai was edged out by Chen for the job in 2001.

A former setter in the men's national team, Cai led Shanghai to four consecutive titles in the domestic league and was the head coach of national junior team since 1999.

However, his local and junior skills have failed, so far, to translate to the senior international level.

At the Italian invitational tournament in June, China lost to Japan twice within three days for the first time in a decade.

Two months later, they gained revenge at World Grand Prix Finals in Japan but lost their four other matches - to Brazil, the Netherlands, Russia and Germany - to finish fifth.

That disappointment was surpassed at September's Asian Championships in Vietnam. China lost to minnows Thailand 3-1 in the final - a defeat which saw them miss out on a berth at the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup for the first time.

"We went to win the title (of Asian Championships). It was our target but we did not make it," said Cai. "I am sorry about the result. We did our best but we did not reach our expectations."

Having won five world titles in a row in 1980s, the national women's volleyball team has been regarded as the embodiment of China's national spirit and boasts millions of fans throughout the country. Hence, there was no great surprise when the team's sequence of failures was denounced by media and enthusiasts.

"The coach is the target of overwhelming criticism and fans really want to eat the 'vegetable-stuffed bun' (Cai's name can be interpreted to mean vegetable and weak)," said the Sichuan-based Chengdu Business Daily.

According to a public poll on sina.com, 86 percent of fans believe Cai is not capable of taking the women's volleyball team to a higher level. Only 11 percent said the players did not perform up to par.

However, the sport's governing body does not, for now, share the opinion of the public.

"The first year is to test the new coach," said Li Quanqiang, deputy director of the Chinese Volleyball Administrative Center. "It's not right for fans to call for his sacking. Everyone on the team should take responsibility. We should not blame every problem on the coach. We need time to deal with the problems. We will give the coach and players one year to make the necessary adjustments."

Cai's last chances will be at the World Grand Prix in August and October's World Championships in Japan. China finished fourth four years ago and are expected to finish no worse than that this year.

While the national team struggled on the world stage, the domestic league gained unprecedented attention thanks to the "Iron Hammer", Lang Ping, who signed on to coach Guangdong in the women's second division league.

With a star-stubbed cast, including former national team setter Feng Kun and two former American national team members, the side has won 10 straight matches to date and has qualified for the first division next season.

Tickets for matches involving Guangdong sold out and several matches will be broadcast live on CCTV.

Despite the winning streak, what drew interest from the media was the fact the team was the first truly professional volleyball club in China.

Source: China Daily/Agencies
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