Canada (CAN) vs. Mexico (MEX) men - Pool C #7303234

Canada celebrate their qualification for Paris 2024

In a dramatic turn of events on Pool C’s last day of the men’s FIVB Road to Paris Volleyball Qualifiers, Canada stamped their ticket to next year’s Olympic Games as pool runners-up. At the start of the day, Belgium enjoyed the best chances of joining pool winners Poland on the way from Xi’an to Paris. All they had to do was beat Bulgaria, but despite the fact that the southern Europeans had no shot at the top two spots in the final pool standings, they pulled off a surprising five-set victory. Now all Canada had to do was win against winless Mexico and they did so in straight sets to celebrate a berth at Paris 2024.

It will be Canada’s third consecutive and sixth overall appearance at the Games. Their best result was a fourth place at Los Angeles 1984.

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After a fierce five-set battle in Sunday’s opening match in Xi’an, Bulgaria claimed a victory over the stunned Belgians to finish fifth in the pool on a 4-3 win-loss record and 11 points, four points short of fourth-placed Belgium, also on 4-3.

Belgium (BEL) vs. Bulgaria (BUL) men - Pool C #7300636

Bulgaria’s coach Plamen Konstantinov and setter Georgi Seganov console Belgian captain Sam Deroo after the match

In the first set, Bulgaria recovered from a 16-12 Belgian advantage and took the lead after a strong final sprint. The western Europeans maintained control through most of the next two sets to step in front, only a set away from the coveted victory, but then the rest of the match was pretty much all about Bulgaria. The southern Europeans had made some changes to their line-up, which resulted in eventual success that came with Nikolay Penchev’s kill block for the match winner.

The attack (64-55 in spike kills) and the block (18-11 in stuffs) were Bulgaria’s strong weapons in this game, while the Belgians did better in serving (5-2 in aces) and made fewer unforced errors (25-34). Amidst speculations that this might be his last match with the national team, experienced Bulgarian star opposite and captain Tsvetan Sokolov produced a match-high 27 points, including four stuffs and an ace. Outside Martin Atanasov added another 16, while middle Aleks Grozdanov impressed with six kill blocks towards an 11-point tally. Opposite Ferre Reggers led Belgium with 26 points, including two blocks.

After losing to Belgium on Saturday, Canada had almost given up hope, but inspired by the unexpected new opportunity, they hammered out a shutout of Mexico to qualify for Paris. The Canadians finished the pool in second place on 5-2 and 15 points, while Mexico had to leave the tournament without winning a single set. In a one-sided match, Canada’s outside hitter Eric Loeppky topped the scorers’ chart with 16 points, including one ace and one block. His cross-court teammate Stephen Maar added another 12 points. Canada’s middle blocker Jordan Schnitzer and Mexico’s outside Josue Lopez finished with 11 points each.

"It was an important game after yesterday," said Canada’s captain Nicholas Hoag, a two-time Olympian. "It was disappointing and scary to be in that position, but we got another opportunity today and we took it. We stepped up and we had also beat the teams we needed to earlier in the tournament. I'm really happy with the way the guys performed; we got the job done. The celebration starts and we will have the year to prepare for Paris!"

“It’s unbelievable,” added head coach Tuomas Sammelvuo. "I’m just so happy for volleyball in Canada, and the history of what people have done for many years with this programme to now consistently be in the Olympics (third consecutive appearance). I would like to thank the players, not only the ones here in China, but also those that have given so much effort to this programme during the summer, as well as the coaching staff that have been part of the programme. It’s an unbelievable moment and being in the Olympics is huge, as it represents the country."

Argentina also took advantage of the opportunity to move higher in the table. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic bronze medallists delivered a sweep of their last match in Xi’an, against the Netherlands, and finished third on 5-2 and 13, two points below Canada. Opposite Pablo Koukartsev led the way with 14 points. Middle Agustin Loser and outside Luciano Vicentin contributed 12 points apiece. Thijs Ter Horst and Bennie Tuinstra were the best scorers for the Netherlands with 13 and 12 points, respectively. The Dutch finished sixth in the table on 2-5 and six points.

In the last match of the tournament, Poland survived a five-set battle with hosts China to finish the event undefeated, on 7-0 and 18 points. They managed a victory and left the home team in seventh place on 1-6 and six points. Three players scored 20+ points for Poland. Outsides Tomasz Fornal (six kill blocks and an ace) and Kamil Semeniuk (two kill blocks) led the way with 21 points apiece. Opposite Bartolomiej Boladz added another 20 (three aces and three kill blocks). His counterpart Zhang Guanhua was China’s best scorer with 18 points.