The French volleyball players fell against the Italian giants on Thursday, September 14, in Rome: in front of 11,000 excited fans and in a stifling atmosphere, they suffered the law of the reigning European and world champions in the semi-final of the Euro 2023. There was no exploit for the Blues: outsiders of this high-level duel, they did not manage to make their hosts doubt, winners 3 to 0 (25-21, 25-19, 25 -20).
Italy will aim for an eighth continental coronation, the second in a row, on Saturday against Poland in the same Sports Palace in Rome, while France will try to console itself the same day with the bronze medal against Slovenia.
Jeered upon entering the field and targeted in the first round by spectators who blinded them with lasers, the Blues, coached by Italian “pallavolo” legend Andrea Giani, held off until 18-18 in the first round. But the Nazionale, with its brilliant passer Simone Gianelli at the helm, finished strong to pocket the opening set in 29 minutes.
At the start of the second set, the Blues fell back into their ways of this tournament, collecting unforced errors on services (3 in a row for a total of nine in the set). The joint entries of Earvin Ngapeth and Stephen Boyer at 13-7 in favor of the Italians stopped the bleeding, but the damage was done and the Blues conceded the second set on a new serving fault.
Quite a symbol, in the third set, Ngapeth, spared until then in the tournament, found himself on the ground after seeing his attack countered by the Italian block. His Blues failed to get up. “We let the Italian team play their game. We can play much better than what we did tonight. I have the feeling that we weren't really in this match, I didn't like the way we approached and managed this match,” regretted Gianni.
Exceptional team spirit
Even if the hoped-for title is not achieved, this Euro allows the Tokyo Olympic champions in 2021 to reassure themselves one year before “their” Olympics, next summer in Paris. If they won the 2022 Nations League, the Blues remained in two disappointing major tournaments (9th in Euro 2021, 5th in the 2022 World Cup).
The French did not completely dispel doubts during a group stage marked by a defeat against Romania, which above all allowed Andrea Giani to carry out a squad review, in particular to assess the state of form of its star player Earvin Ngapeth. He may be a volleyball phenomenon, voted best player of the 2021 Olympic tournament, but Ngapeth was not ready to play a competition of this intensity after a long absence of four months due to injury.
The one who is considered one of the best receivers-attackers in activity had to be content with snatches of the match, until the semi-final, where Giani tried everything for everything, after being decisive in the first set of the eighth against Bulgaria. “We weren't playing on equal terms because we had too many physical problems,” Ngapeth emphasized. Physically, we weren't all well. If we play and we are all well, if I don't have a problem in my knee, it's not the same match. »
This tournament also served as a reminder that the golden generation of French volleyball is driven by an exceptional team spirit, which allows it to compensate for a certain deficit in power and size. The Blues swept their Bulgarian hosts 3-0 in the round of 16 in Varna, then corrected in the quarter-final, by the same score, the Romanians, who had beaten them in the group stage. It was not enough, however, against the more athletic, more confident and younger Italy, whose reign may only be beginning.