There is a saying, as old as the hills, that opposites attract. But in volleyball, sometimes it is true that opposites repel, or more accurately, do battle against each other. On rare occasions the confrontation between two opposite players is so spectacular it becomes the focal point of a match.
For Carol Gordon, that was the case in the Turkey vs Italy matches of the Volleyball Nations League in 2019. The series is the choice of the former head coach of the England cadets, who chose the games as rare examples of how two people who are similar in their physical presence and athleticism, who play the same position, and whose teams use them in a similar way to increase the depth of their offense, end up becoming the players around whom a game flows.
The two combatants were six-foot-five Ebrar Karakut of Turkey and six-foot Paola Egonu of Italy. The games between the two sides were three weeks apart in the tournament, the first was the more thrilling of the two, going to five sets with Italy taking the win. When the teams met again Turkey swept the Italians and moved on to the place in the semifinals that was at stake.
Gordon’s suggestion is to concentrate on the opposites and let the rest of the game more or less pass by. Her favourite of the two is, understandably, the first match.
“In the VNL the (June ) game wasn’t as important as the last one (the July rematch),” Gordon noted. However, in terms of how an opposite can influence a game, it is a classic. You’ll have to follow the highlights videos with a little creative viewing by amalgamating the opposites’ performances in both matches. But by watching both, you should get a good idea of what drew Gordon to the two athletes’ amazing skills, and the intensity of their confrontation.
One thing that caught Gordon ‘s eye was that despite differences in their playing styles, and despite a six-inch height difference, “They’re a very similar physical build,” she said. “They both have a longer body” and can use their arms “like a whip” when they follow through.
“That’s unusual in the womens’ game,” Gordon pointed out, and both the teams make maximum use of that to expand their repertoire of attacks. It is particularly evident in the way both teams use their opposites as back row attackers.
“Women don’t use the pipe as much, but both of those opposites are used as pipe hitters,” she pointed out. “It’s because of their athletic build and their determination.” She can recall only two female players in the UK in recent times who could compare to the style of Karakut and Egonu, and those are Lucy Bolton and Lizzie Reid.
Of course, the Turk and the Italian have significant differences despite their similar physical structure, Gordon noted, but she thinks there is one in particular: experience. “The difference is their age. Egonu is the older of the two. Her block timing and defensive timing is different. The Italian is more experienced, stronger and older.”
So, these two particular athletes are different, yet they’re also similar. And to understand what might be their greatest shared quality you need to look beyond the physical build and the experience, Gordon says. You need to get into the personality of the players.
Playing opposite is “almost a selfish role, like a striker in football,” she explained. “They have to be quite selfish in that responsibility because they want more of the ball, but they understand what the consequences are.”