Saturday’s final showpiece of the Asian Volleyball Championship against Japan was supposed to be an opportunity for Iran head coach Behrouz Ataei and his men – chasing a third successive crown on home soil – to bounce back from a dreadful Volleyball Nations League (VNL) campaign earlier in the summer, and reestablish themselves as the dominant force of the sport in the continent.
However, Iran capped a miserable 80 days with a second straight-set defeat against the Asian foe since early June, the first being in the VNL opener before 10 losses in 12 outings saw Ataei’s side finish third from bottom in the 16-team table of the preliminary round, while it was even more painful for the Iranian fans to watch Japan go on to claim the bronze medal thanks to a victory over reigning world champion Italy.
As the Japanese players celebrated a record-extending 10th Asian crown in Urmia’s jam-packed Ghadir Arena on Saturday, chants of protest could be heard among the home crowd, calling for Ataei to step down from his role, which indicated the razor thin margin between success and failure, admiration and disapproval, for the Iranian coach.
Having led the country to the world under-21 title in 2019, Ataei took over from high-profile Russian Vladimir Alekno after a group stage exit at the Tokyo Olympics to become the first domestic coach in charge of the Iranian senior team in more than a decade.
His rebuild project within the squad instantly paid off as he steered Iran to a fourth Asian trophy with just over a month into the job, courtesy of an emphatic win against host Japan.
The Iranian received further praise nationwide when his team – inspired by some new faces in Amin Esameilnejad, Amirhossein Esfandiar, Mehdi Jelveh, and Amirhossein Toukhteh – recovered from a slow start to progress to the VNL quarterfinals last year, defeating volleyball giants USA, Poland, and Serbia in doing so.
The last-16 defeat against Brazil in the World Championship later that year did little to raise doubts over Ataei’s credentials, as Iran still seemed to be on the right track toward success at the 2024 Paris Olympics, which the Iranian coach had underlined as his ultimate goal when he took the helm.
Less than a year on, the VNL disappointment in July led to pundits and former players in the country urging the Iranian volleyball governing body to reinforce Ataei’s coaching staff, before the latest setback against Japan drew questions over the future of the head coach himself.
The international events will come thick and fast and Mohammadreza Davarzani, the chairman of the federation, was quick to rule out Ataei’s dismissal ahead of September’s Asian Games and the Olympic qualifiers in Brazil.
“We intend to avoid making decisions under pressure as it could result in further blows,” the Iranian volleyball chief said on Sunday.
With only the top two from each of the three groups securing a berth in the Olympics, Iran will be facing a daunting task against Brazil, Italy, Cuba, Ukraine, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Qatar in Pool A of the qualification tournament.
The teams will have a second chance to book the Paris ticket as the remaining slots will be filled by the top five nations not yet qualified in the FIVB World Rankings by the end of the preliminary phase of the 2024 Volleyball Nations League.
On the long-term future of the national team’s bench, Davarzani dropped a vague hint, saying: “We will surely come up with a more proper decision for next year’s VNL and the Olympic Games.”