A tournament for all the world
26th June 2017
Photo courtesy of Jon Chater Photography
It’s fair to say that the All Nations Tournament, which concluded in London last weekend, isn’t your typical volleyball tournament.
But when that tournament ends with 300 screaming fans creating the sort of atmosphere that few players in this country will have ever experienced, quite frankly, who cares?
This year’s competition featured 533 players, 52 different nationalities and 48 teams (27 women’s teams and 21 men’s). In keeping with the competition’s Olympic-inspired roots, each of those teams represented a different country or region of the world, rather than a club.
Anybody can take part in the All Nations. Trials and coaching sessions are laid on ahead of the competition to determine who makes it into which teams. Composite ‘Rest of the World’ teams are then available to anyone who doesn’t quite make it into their own national teams, meaning that everyone gets to play somewhere across the tournament’s two weekends of competition.
Talk to Darius Setsoafia about the tournament and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of quite how proud he is to be associated with it. The England international has been involved with the tournament since 2006. He’s now the tournament’s vice-director but 11 years ago, he did whatever odd jobs the tournament organisers needed doing in return for getting to play in the competition. He’s never looked back since.
“The tournament was set up in 2005 by Gary Beckford,” he explained, “when he managed to secure some funding from TimeBank to run an Olympic-themed event. The following year, I was desperate to take part but couldn’t afford the entry fee. Fortunately, Gary was also my coach at the time so when I volunteered to help in any way I could just to be around the tournament, he then let me play for free. Every year since, he’s found ways of getting me more and more involved with running the event. As a result, I feel that it’s now my baby, just as much as his.”
As a former chair of the London Volleyball Association, Gary Beckford had long despaired at the hostility some players displayed towards each other on court during the league season. His desire to create a friendlier playing environment provided the inspiration for the All Nations Tournament. By playing as nations, rather than clubs, the hope was that players who would normally be on opposite sides of the net would come together, traditional rivalries would be put aside and lasting friendships would be built.
The playing numbers suggest that Gary’s idea worked – as the 2005 tournament featured just 10 teams and 24 nationalities. According to Darius, the tournament could now be best described as part family reunion and part volunteer training ground.
“The volunteering aspect is really important to us. We want the tournament to be a training ground for all kinds of volunteers – not just coaches or referees but also administrators, journalists or event managers. If people want to get some experience on their CV, we’ll find a spot for them. We’ll also find the people who can coach and guide the newer volunteers.”
“The tournament now has such a multi-cultural feel to it, with teams representing countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Lithuania, the Philippines and Hungary. With people coming back year after year, there’s a real sense of community as well. One guy flew in all the way from San Diego this year, just to play. And we’ve had at least one couple get married after meeting at the All Nations. We know the tournament isn’t perfect – we can still improve – but it’s definitely worth the ride!”
While the tournament is always open to all-comers, the standard at the top end continues to improve. This year’s men’s final, in which Team Africa beat Great Britain, featured several members of the current England squad while there was a healthy smattering of pros and former pros across the whole competition. Former GB Olympians such as Janine Sandell, Elizabeth Reid, Shauna Miedzybrodzki, Nathan French, Kieran O’Malley and Peter and Dami Bakare have also appeared in the past.
The tournament’s continued growth is evidenced by how the organisers managed to secure the Copper Box as a venue for one of their four days of competition this year. Both finals were also live-streamed for the first time.
Looking back at some of the highlights of the tournament, Darius picks out the absolutely deafening noise made by the fans as Hungary defeated Italy in the women’s final, the obvious friendship and camaraderie on court at all times and the return of so many familiar faces.
“That women’s final was something else. But it’s no surprise. There’s a vibe about this tournament. There’s a noticeable togetherness among the athletes but there’s real emotion too; in the stands and on the court. It’s utterly contagious. Yet it never crosses the line; not a single red or yellow card was shown in the whole competition.”
But there were other moments too, he recalled: “I had some feedback from one player, saying that he’d apparently been on the verge of quitting the sport but that his experience at the All Nations had made him reconsider. But also, one of the cleaners at the University of East London [the competition’s other venue] came up to me at one point, wanting to know where he might go to play, as he’d been so impressed with what he’d seen. How mad is that?!”
Anyone wanting to find out more about the All Nations Tournament or to get involved next year can click here.