Will Paul Bitok make a good choice for Malkia at the world championship? : The Sport standard

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

The 2022 FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Championship draw kicks off a potentially thorny clash as Poland’s co-hosts the Netherlands welcome the world to the GelreDome in Arnhem, the venue for all opening group matches .

Malkia Strikers, the African record champions and their continental sisters Cameroon, have been drawn in Group A. The group also features 2012 champions and 2018 losing runners-up Italy, Belgium and Puerto Rico who occupy ten places above Kenya in the world ranking. . Puerto Rico is 17th in the FIVB World while Kenya is 27th in the world rankings.

Nineteen other countries, such as the reigning Olympic champion, the United States, are divided into three groups of six teams each.

The United States, who are currently the highest-ranked team in the world, headline Group C alongside reigning world champions Serbia, Germany, Canada and Kazakhstan – the lowest-ranked team of what was deemed to be the group of death.

Also in the group is Bulgaria whose best performance in this competition remains a fourth place finish in 1952 which was held in the then Soviet Union (now Russia).

Russia, record world champion with seven titles (five for the Soviet Union), will not participate in this edition after its country was sanctioned for invading Ukraine.

But despite the absence of Russia, the records of some participating teams, such as the three-time winners – Japan and Cuba; and China, who have two world titles, can be chilling.

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

Kenya are the lowest ranked team in their group. But a confident Paul Bitok, the Malkia Strikers head coach, still has faith in his team, adding that it may be time for the country to top the group for the first time in the history of the competition. .

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

The Dutch, who will not only play in front of their home fans in Arnhem, the city of the eastern municipality and the capital of the province of Gelderland, are ranked tenth in the world.

Belgium, another of Bitok’s opponents, while Cameron, the highest ranked African team, are seven places ahead of Kenya, which is 27th in the world.

Bitok insists this is a fair group.

“It’s a tough group, but again I can say it’s a fair group compared to previous draws in this championship. We have a good team who, if we prepare well, we can reach the ever-elusive second round,” Bitok said 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 has guided Kenya to the last two world championships, warns pinning high hopes on the current squad could disappoint some fans.

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

Bitok will use a mix of youth and experience when he names a provisional squad of 34 players who are expected to undergo residential training in June.

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

But Lunga’ho says betting on the “old bone” may not be a good idea for a country that is in the transition period.

“If I was with the team, I would choose a young team. I don’t think it’s worth taking players who have been there and yet we’re not going to win the tournament,” Lung’ said. Ah O.

“Right now we have some quality young players. Personally, I will carry a big batch of a youth team but each coach has his own strategy.

Kenya, who made their world championship debut in 1994, have never progressed beyond the group stages of this competition. In fact, no other African country has ever lifted this trophy.

So, will Bitok finally break a 28-year-old bad spell inside a 34,000-capacity GelreDome, the world’s first multifunctional event accommodation to feature a retractable pitch?

The GelreDome, which turned 24 on March 25, is also one of the largest theaters in the Netherlands and can change form – from a football stadium to a temple of pop, or from an arena to tennis to a trade show building, in five hours, according to the stadium’s official website.

But even with such a high-tech facility pending, Bitok is unafraid. He said his players shouldn’t worry.

“We have a chance to get 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 training ahead of the trip to the Netherlands, starting in the first week of June.

“We want to enter the camp on June 5 at the latest,” he revealed.

Meanwhile, Kenya will host a two-month camp in Brazil with the final two weeks of training in Serbia.

“My aim is to start the preparation early, but the African Club Championship schedule will interfere with the plans,” Bitok said.

The Club Championships will take place from May 19 to June 1 in Tunis, Tunisia.

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

“This team should have been in camp right now. We haven’t played top-level matches since the last Olympics. If you compare us to other countries, honestly our quality is very low. It’s disappointing,” fumed Lung’aho.

According to Lunga’ho, the drop in quality can be attributed to the FIVB’s decision to withdraw Africa from the World League (a new competition which was adopted following the abolition of the Grand Prix).

“If you look at the team we had in 2013-15, the team was so strong because we used to play so many international matches. We have to go back, but that will only happen if the FIVB admits Africa in the World League,” he said.

“Our players are so inactive because there are no games.”

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

“It’s not an easy group. Italy and the Netherlands are not small teams. Belgium also beat us in the Grand Prix. Where are we as a country and who do we rely on to win?” asked Wasike.

Wasike, who previously served as general secretary of the Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF), said Kenya needs to put the right structures in place like identifying and promoting talent and then exposing the players.

“We have two types of players in this team at the moment… the more mature and the young ones. But are we ready to face the world playing with the intention of winning or do we just want to participate?

“We have to do more than participate and go there with the aim of winning. But we must pay particular attention to development. We shouldn’t just name the team and expect them to win,” he said.

The championship will take place from September 23 to October 15.

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