"This is not even a dream come true. It's beyond my dreams."
That's Angamuthu Ramaswamy, one of India's best volleyball players today, speaking about playing in the FIVB Men's Volleyball Club World Championship (CWC). Representing Ahmedabad Defenders, Angamuthu and Co will take on the planet's best volleyball clubs over the next few days.
This is an opportunity like never before for Indian volleyball. It's like the Indian volleyball players taking on the Messis, Ronaldos and Neymars of the volleyball world. Or as Indian attacker Ashwal Rai puts it, "It's like how a junior team would feel like when they play against iconic players like Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Rahul] Dravid."
The Club World Championship comes to India at a time that could be phrased as the "golden era 2.0" of Indian volleyball. There have been administrative lapses aplenty, but just as much effort has been put to lift the sport out of the doldrums that long plagued it.
For starters, there's an annual professional league -- the Prime Volleyball League (PVL) -- that has become a regular fixture on the calendar. The PVL has boosted the sport's image by successfully bringing it to mobile screens and TV units. Now add to this the men's volleyball team's awe-inspiring run at the Asian Games, which forced people to stand up and take notice of the sport. And now you have the Club World Championship in India, where the Ahmedabad Defenders, who won the PVL, will brush shoulders against the best.
Who are they taking on? Oh, just a few players who have been Olympic, world and club champions. While there may be a couple of fanboy moments in the hotel lobbies, Defender's Srajan Shetty says the stature of the opponents won't matter when they step into the court.
A chance to play in the world's biggest volleyball club tournament, an opportunity to impress scouts and attract offers from overseas clubs and the platform to play against some of their idols: the Club World Championship is a win-win scenario for the Indian volleyball players.
For Angamuthu, the CWC gives him a chance to go up against his childhood hero Wallace de Souza. The Brazilian Olympic champion is regarded among the greatest spikers in the game's history.
"I've seen a lot of his videos on YouTube, maybe I've watched more of his videos than he has watched of himself. (laughs) I have messaged him many times on Instagram and Facebook and I knew the odds of him replying were slim, but it was always a dream that if he replied I could learn something from him. He's been my inspiration and to now play against him is a great opportunity. But it's not like I just want to compete, I want to prove myself while playing against him," he says in earnest.
- Ahmedabad Defenders (@Amd_Defenders) December 6, 2023
The Club World Championship is an avenue for players like Angamuthu to not only play against the best but also understand what it takes to excel at the top level. Indian volleyball has for long largely been confined to Asia, while the sport is many years ahead in Europe, the home of volleyball.
Watching these volleyball greats, such as Wilfred Leon, Earvin N'Gapeth and Dmitry Muserskiy from close quarters is a learning experience in itself.
"Until now, we have only watched such top-level volleyball on television. But watching it on TV versus facing them on the court is a whole different feeling. It will help us understand where we're lacking and what we can do to improve. This will serve as a huge advantage for Indian volleyball," says Mohan Ukkrapandian.
Ukkrapandian, a journeyman in Indian volleyball, is 35 now it might be a tad late for him to get a foreign contract. But the tournament provides just that for the likes of Angamuthu, Muthusamy Appavu and Ashwal.
A few of the Indian players were approached by foreign scouts after the last PVL season, but the Club World Championship will attract a lot more interest from the volleyball hotspots in Europe.
As Max Senica, the only overseas player in the Ahmedabad Defenders squad, says, "The Indian players are really good, I'm very impressed. I did not think they would be this good. Some are ready to play overseas, I feel."
At 25, Max knows a thing or two about playing overseas. He has played top-level volleyball in Denmark, Cyprus and Qatar and is one of the best foreign players to play for an Indian club. You see, most of the other foreign players in the PVL are either beach volleyball players or stars at the university level, while Max is a notch above that.
The Australian, from what he has seen so far, feels the Indian players just need that extra push to make the move abroad.
"The confidence to leave your home...it's tough and can be scary in the beginning. But when you get used to it and it becomes your job, it becomes normal. I spoke to a player today who got a message from an agent and I said, 'this is perfect, this is the first step to becoming a professional.' I am young and have limited experience, but I understand the process. I can help the Indians with the first step, which is for sure the hardest."
Angamuthu might be two years older than Max, and there was a joke running in the team because they all thought Max was at least 30 considering his experience, but he relishes the chance to pick the Aussie's brains.
"He comes in with huge experience, we just cannot compare ourselves with him."
Then comes the systemic growth that this tournament could lead to. The PVL has brought along a more professional approach to the sport and there's been development on and off the court. Ashwal, who captained the men's team at the Asian Games, recalls, "People from other countries asked us what has changed, how India has become good. They see something different in us and that's why they came up to us."
The successful hosting of the PVL and now, the Club World Championship, coupled with the quality of talent could establish India as a destination for top-tier volleyball events. This could in turn have a domino effect where more events are held in India, and along with it, the interest in the sport would also grow.
Joy Bhattacharya, CEO of the PVL, says, "It's a great opportunity, and it always makes a difference. Some kid will see some great volleyball player and be inspired...five or 10 years later he might be playing for the country. The reason we did this tournament is to say, can we raise the profile of Indian volleyball internationally? We're doing it because we just want to raise the profile of Indian volleyball. It's a huge punt for us, it's not making us money, but it will make a difference to volleyball in India," he says.
He adds that there's terrific interest in India as a market also since every sport feels they have a chance to establish themselves as the #2 sport in the country.
"The Club World Championship is not happening just because we are doing very well, but also because every sporting association in the world wants to come into India because India is a crazy market where there's one dominant sport and there's nothing else. Being the #2 or #3 sport in a country of 1. 4 billion people is a huge thing. The fact that we have enough talent and that combined with our population of 1.4 billion people makes a devastating combination. That's why everyone wants to make Indian volleyball grow," he adds.
Tuhin Mishra, the co-founder of Baseline Ventures and PVL's co-promoter, says hosting Club World Championship will also serve as a benchmark for other sporting bodies.
"We're hosting the best volleyball players in the world here. Never so far, at one point in time, have we had the best of players playing on Indian soil [other than cricket.] By hosting them, what we're doing is also setting a benchmark for other sports. This becomes a reference point not only for us as a volleyball community, but I would say it will help all federations and sporting bodies."