Mr. Stefanescu, Alba Blaj have just reclaimed the title in the Romanian league. This title comes only one year after finishing second in the domestic league. What made the difference this year?
Sergiu Stefanescu: First of all, we are very happy with our achievements this season, after achieving the double of the Romanian Championship and Romanian Cup. It is great for our town. We did not want to make the same mistakes as last year. We knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to regain the title from CSM Bucharest, because they are one of the biggest clubs in south-east Europe. We had to have a balanced team which could come up with in-game solutions on each post, and that helped us to achieve our main goal of winning games. Reclaiming the national title was the culmination of that achievement.
It has been another big season for Alba Blaj. Your team did not only dominate the domestic league and celebrated a silver medal in the CEV Cup after finishing second in the CEV Champions League last year but can also win the Romanian cup next week. What are the main reasons for these achievements?
Sergiu Stefanescu:We did not want to play in the CEV Cup. Our ambition is to play in the Women’s Volleyball Champions League, but unfortunately, we did not qualify. In Romania we have a motto: when one door closes another opens. Therefore, when we suffered defeat in Stuttgart, we took the chance the CEV Cup then gave to us. We had the advantage that our team of players had been built for a participation in the Champions League, so we had an easier run in the CEV Cup – except of Galatasaray and Busto Arsizio. We managed to beat Galatasaray in this campaign, but in the CEV Cup Final we were up against Busto Arsizio, a team from the strongest championship in the world. We did not have much success, unfortunately. Still, we are happy to have played in two of the most important European finals in consecutive years.
Over the last years, Alba Blaj has become a role model in Romanian volleyball fighting for glory in international competitions. In your opinion, what is the main reason for Alba Blaj’s titles and medals in national and international competitions in the last years?
Sergiu Stefanescu:From the very beginning, we wanted to develop a serious long-term project in Blaj. We managed to win trophies quicker than we expected, and thanks to a leadership that provided the necessary financial stability in this sport, professional technical staff who knew how to select the best and most serious players, we made this project a success. In addition, we have benefited from the services of one of the best coaches in the world, Darko Zakoc, who has practically written history with this team over the last 5 years. Let us not forget the huge wave of interest that Volei Alba Blaj attracts to our entire community.
Due to the title in the Romanian championship, Alba Blaj will be able to participate in the CEV Champions League again next season. How important is it to participate in the CEV Champions League for your club? Or can it also be a financial burden?
Sergiu Stefanescu:We will do our best to reach the Champions League and go far in it. It is a competition we are already used to. We will play for the fourth time in the group stages, and that tells us everything about our desire to take on the best in Europe. It is an honour for Volei Alba Blaj to play at this level and that is why we do not have a problem participating. Of course, unlike in other sports – football or handball – there are no big revenues in the Women’s Volleyball Champions League, but thanks to our sponsors, we will cope with this.
The Romanian league is not considered as competitive as the Italian, the Russian or the Turkish league. But Romanian clubs could still celebrate some big results this year – your silver and Stiinta Bacau’s bronze medals are good examples. Is the Romanian league on the rise?
Sergiu Stefanescu:For sure, the Romanian League is not as strong as the Italian, Turkish or Russian leagues, but this is normal, Romania as a whole lags behind. Financial problems and underfunding of sports in general in Romania mean there will be less teams in our domestic championship than usual next season. However, top quality has increased, and here I am referring to CSM Bucharest, CSM Targoviste and Stiinta Bacau, which, along with us, all have very good teams. In fact, the matches between these teams were of European level, very spectacular to watch and of high technical standard. We hope that volleyball will grow in the future, and we are sure to follow through on our aims to develop, through our services, club volleyball in Romania as a whole.
How difficult is it for your team and your club to adapt to the level of Italian, Russian, and Turkish clubs you face in the Champions League and/or the CEV Cup?
Sergiu Stefanescu:Sometimes, I really cannot believe what we have achieved already. How far we have come is staggering. Can you believe that a team from a humble town with 20.000 people has taken on clubs from huge capital cities like Istanbul or Moscow? It is like David against Goliath.
Alba Blaj decided to host the CEV Champions League in Bucharest last year. What was your motivation to host such a big event?
Sergiu Stefanescu:It was a dream come true. We dared to believe in a miracle and our enthusiasm was also unconscious and contagious, too. But most importantly, the CEV, the Romanian Volleyball Federation and our partners and sponsors believed in us and in our dream. We wanted to bring a sporting event of the highest class to Romania, especially since it was a unique occasion. We also want to attract the attention of the whole world to this team, coming from a small town in Transylvania, which achieved something that a great deal of richer and more illustrious teams have not. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to organize such a sporting event. It was our dream that I think we have succeeded in fulfilling what we have set out with the Final Four in Bucharest, and once again we have written history for us and for our country. The fact that we are one of Europe’s most respectable teams is also due to the organisation of this tournament.
What feedback did you get back from local media and officials?
Sergiu Stefanescu:There was a lot of interest from the press in those days. In fact, many personalities from the international volleyball world were present in Bucharest and, from this point of view, it was a real success to organise the Final Four of the Women’s Volleyball Champions League. Bucharest and Volei Alba Blaj, for sure will rest in Champions League volleyball history. But for us, the most important legacy of this event was that in Blaj, the local authorities started to build a new Sports Hall with facilities accommodating 2.500 spectators, which will host international sports events. Regarding our performance, now everyone is referring to Volei Alba Blaj when talking about women’s volleyball.
What were the main challenges you as organisers faced?
Sergiu Stefanescu:The main issues we faced were the lack of necessary infrastructure to organise such a tournament. The Polyvalent Hall from Bucharest is quite old, but we managed to make it so that the spectators present at the matches feel that they are attending a premium event. The lack of host experience and lack of modern infrastructure in Bucharest – airport, traffic, etc. – were the major problems. But we approached the challenge with a lot of enthusiasm and hard work, and in the end,we got the job done.
Do you think hosting the CEV Champions League Finals helped your club and volleyball in Romania in its growth?
Sergiu Stefanescu:For sure, in a normal society, such a great performance helps volleyball to grow. But we are in Romania. I hope that in the future more and more teams will invest and want to get closer to what we have achieved. It will not be easy for us to repeat such feats, and I am aware of that, but as long as we maintain our level we believe we can be an example to follow in Romanian volleyball. I have to mention that when the CEV announced that Bucharest will host the Final Four of the Champions League, the Romanian Volleyball Federation also received from the CEV the right to organise one pool of the Women’s European Volleyball Championship – 2021 in Cluj Napoca. This is a major step for Romanian Volleyball too.
Your club was one of the first to join the ACPV. Why do you think the ACPV’s plans are important for the future of volleyball?
Sergiu Stefanescu:Yes indeed, Volei Alba Blaj joined the ACPV and we too hope for a quick development in volleyball – like handball, basketball or even football. How these sports have succeeded can be an example for volleyball to follow. First of all, volleyball needs more money for development. Clubs from Eastern Europe have to receive more support to reach the next level. If every year only clubs from Italy, Turkey, and Russia are competing for European trophies, it is not good for volleyball. In my opinion, volleyball deserves to be one of the best and most popular sports in Europe.
Do you think that plans of the ACPV could help make more opportunities for clubs in leagues like in Romania to compete at the highest level in the future?
Sergiu Stefanescu:At this point, we need any organisation that wants to help and work for volleyball. The ACPV can support clubs and can open other ways for developing volleyball. The ACPV can really help volleyball by improving its image and attracting more money and more sponsors. With a more lucrative game than ever before, we will attract more live venue spectators and more television viewers, too. The ACPV can also push for a new competitive calendar which suits the needs of television, clubs, and players but still falls within the interests of national federations, too. Volleyball can grow if all involved pull in the same direction towards this goal. The future of volleyball can be great if everybody believes that volleyball is the most beautiful sport and deserves to be one of the best products we can market in the sporting world.
Image: Youtube, Dan Udrea