Will Paul Bitok make a right call for Malkia at World Championship?

Malkia Strikers in action against Cameroon during the African Nations Championship in Kigali, Rwanda. [Courtesy-CAVB]

The draw for the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship tosses a potential nail-biting clash as Poland’s co-host, the Netherlands welcome the world to GelreDome in Arnhem, the venue for all opening group matches.

Malkia Strikers, the record African champions​​ and their continental sisters from Cameroon, have been drawn in Group A. The group also have the 2012 champion and 2018 losing finalist Italy, Belgium and Puerto Rico who sit ten places above Kenya in the world ranking. Puerto Rico are 17th in the FIVB world while Kenya is in position 27 in the global ranking.

Nineteen other countries like the reigning Olympic champion - the USA, are spread across three groups of six teams each.

The USA which is the top-ranked team in the world at the moment, headlines Group C alongside reigning world champions, Serbia, Germany, Canada and Kazakhstan - the lowest-ranked team in what has been considered as the group of death.

Also in the group is Bulgaria whose best performance at this competition, still remains a fourth-place finish in 1952 that was held in the then Soviet Union (currently Russia).

Russia, the record world champions, with seven titles (five as the Soviet Union), will not be taking part in this edition after their country was sanctioned for invading Ukraine.

But despite the absence of Russia, the records of some participating teams, like three-time winners - Japan and Cuba; and China, which has two world titles, can make the heart go cold.

On paper, Kenya seems to have landed in an easy group for the first time in the history of the World Championship, the most comprehensive FIVB volleyball organised event and arguably the second most important, surpassed in prestige only by the Olympic Games.

Kenya is the least-ranked team in her group. But a confident Paul Bitok, the Malkia Strikers’ head coach, still has faith in his squad, adding that maybe this is the time for the country to go past the group for the first time in the history of the competition.

Kenya’s opponents are the world’s sixth-best team - Italy; and the Netherlands.

The Dutch, who will not only be will be playing before home fans at Arnhem, the eastern municipality city and the capital of the province of Gelderland, is ranked tenth in the world.

Belgium, another of Bitok’s opponents are while Cameron, the top-ranked African side, is seven places above Kenya, which is 27th in the world.

Bitok insist that this is a fair group.

“It’s a tough pool but again I can say this is a fair group compared with the past draws in this championship. We have a good squad which if we prepare well we can reach the ever-elusive second round,” said Bitok in a previous interview with Standard Sport.

David Lunga’o is the only Kenyan-born coach to have won an international trophy (World Grand Prix in 2015) with Malkia Strikers. ‘Dimosh’, who guided Kenya in the last two world championships warns that putting high hopes on the current squad might disappoint some fans.

“I don’t agree with the coach’s (Bitok) comments that this is a fair group. If you look at all those teams, they are ranked higher than Kenyan. For you to have a realistic chance of going past the group, you must be in the top four (group standing after all preliminary group matches). That means we must beat at least one team,” said Lung’aho.

Bitok will be using a blend of youth and experience when he names a provisional squad of 34 players who are expected to go into residential training in June.

“I will use half junior and half senior players. I want to carefully blend the future and the past,” said Bitok.

But Lunga’ho says that banking on the ‘old bone’ might not be a good idea for a country that is in the transition period.

“If I were with the team, I would pick a young squad. I don’t find it worth taking players who have been there and yet we are not going to win the tournament,” said Lung’aho.

“Right now, we have young players with quality. Personally, I will carry a big batch of a youthful squad but every coach has his own strategy.”

Kenya that made her World Championship debut in 1994, has never gone past the group stages of this competition. In fact, no other African country has ever lifted this trophy.

So, will Bitok finally break a 28-old jinx inside a 34,000 capacity GelreDome, the first multi-functional event accommodation worldwide that has a retractable pitch?

GelreDome which turned 24 on March 25, is also one of the largest theatre in the Netherlands and can change its shape – from a football stadium into a pop temple, or from a tennis arena into a trade fair building, within five hours, according to the stadium’s official website.

But even with such a high tech - facility waiting, Bitok is not scared. He said, his players should not be worried. 

“We have a chance of going past the group stages if we train well,” added Bitok confidently.

To bridge the gap, the former Kenyan international and Rwandan coach has planned a rigorous three month-long training ahead of the trip to the Netherlands, starting the first week of June.

“We want to go into camp latest June 5,” he revealed.

Within that time, Kenya will pitch a two-month camp in Brazil with the final two weeks of the training spent in Serbia.

“My aim is to start early preparation, but the Africa Club Championships calendar will interfere with the plans,” said Bitok.

The club championships will be held between May 19 and June 1 in Tunis, Tunisia.

Lung’aho, however, thinks that three months is a short period to prepare for such a high-level competition, further urging the federation to accord his successor ample time and resources required to prepare the team.

“This team should have been in camp at the moment. We have not played any high profile games since the last Olympics. If you compare ourselves to other countries, honestly, our quality is very low. This is disappointing,” fumes Lung’aho.

According to Lunga’ho, the dip in quality can be attributed to the decision by the FIVB to scrap Africa from the World League (a new competition that was adopted following the abolition of the Grand Prix).

“If you looked at the squad that we had in 2013-2015, the team was so strong because we used to play so many international matches. We need to get back there but that will only happen if FIVB admits Africa to the World League,” he said.

“Our players are so idle because there are no matches.”

Evan Wasike, a former international referee supports Lung’aho’s sentiments saying that for Kenya to start competing favourably with the rest of the world, a lot of work needs to be done.

“This is not an easy group. Italy and Netherlands are not small teams. Belgium also beat us in the Grand Prix. Where are we as a country and who are we banking on to win?” posed Wasike.

Wasike, who previously served as the Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) Secretary-General, says that Kenya needs to put in the right structures like identification and nurturing of talent then expose the players.

“We have two crops of players in this squad, at the moment… the mature ones and youth. But are we ready to face the world by playing with the intention of winning or do we just want to participate?

“We need to do much more than participating and go there with aim of winning. But we need focused attention on development. We shouldn’t just name the team and expect them to win,” he said.

The championship will run from September 23 through to October 15.

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