On the eve of the men’s FIVB Road to Paris Volleyball Qualifiers, Bulgarian rising star Aleksandar Nikolov is hoping the upcoming tournament in Xi’an will provide for an optimistic ending to an otherwise not so successful national team season for the Lions. He is ready to give his all while chasing his Olympic dream in China from September 30 through October 8.
Dad played at two Olympics and it was the best thing he experienced – Aleks Nikolov
Bulgaria’s rising star hopes for a successful end to the national team season in Xi’an
Pubblicato 03:42, 26 Sep 2023
“For me, the Olympic dream is, first of all, to qualify for the Olympics, and then, at least once in my lifetime to get the chance to fight for an Olympic medal,” Aleks Nikolov told Volleyball World. “This has been my dream since I was a kid, since I was watching my dad play. He got a chance to play at two Olympics and he told me that it was the best thing he ever experienced as an athlete.”
Aleks is the first child of legendary Bulgarian opposite Vladimir Nikolov, who competed at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, where the team reached the semifinals, and wife Maya, also a former volleyballer, but the 19-year-old talent has already managed to create his own stellar status in the volleyball world.
The 2.07m-tall outside hitter first impressed at various age-category competitions as well as USA’s collegiate championship. In 2019, he and his Bulgarian teammates earned silver at the CEV U17 European Championship, with Aleks shining as the second best server of the competition. The following year they reached the semifinals of the U18 continental championship, where Nikolov was the third best scorer. He led the Lion Cubs to silver at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Boys’ U19 World Championship and was named on the Dream Team of the tournament. He also made runner-up in three individual rankings – for best scorers, best attackers and best servers. Despite his younger age, he was also the second best server, the fourth best scorer and the fourth best receiver at the U21 World Championship in 2021.
In 2022, Aleks picked up another three medals at continental age-category competitions with Bulgaria, a European Youth Olympic Festival silver and bronze medals at both the U20 and U18 European Championships, while adding more individual honours to his collection: a U20 EuroVolley Dream Teamer and EYOF’s best server. Earlier this season, he was instrumental to Bulgaria’s bronze at the 2023 FIVB Volleyball Men's U21 World Championship in Bahrain, where he topped the charts for both the best scorer and the best server of the tournament.
Nikolov made his official debut with the senior men’s national team in January 2021 as he came in as a sub during EuroVolley qualification matches, but he first appeared as a full-fledged starter for the Lions during Volleyball Nations League 2022 and impressed with his performance at the highest level.
This year, the Bulgarian national team, however, had not been performing at its full potential. Nikolov thinks that the team should have aimed higher in the VNL 2023 and is clearly disappointed with the team’s performance at EuroVolley 2023 earlier this month. The Lions finished 15th in the VNL and an all-time low 15th at the continental championship.
“It’s been a very rough season for us...” he said. “We managed to achieve our goal, which was to stay in the VNL, even though I would’ve liked to try and reach the VNL Finals. In the end, we didn’t manage to reach the VNL Finals, but we saved ourselves from relegation, so at least I’m happy about this. And then obviously it was a huge disappointment at the European Championship, where we were hosts and we were expecting and hoping to do a lot better. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way we had hoped. We had some time to think about it and recuperate and, hopefully, we’ll do better at the Olympic qualifications.”
Bulgaria have one more chance to make the season more positive for them. In the company of Argentina, Belgium, Canada, China, Mexico, the Netherlands and Poland in Pool C of the FIVB Road to Paris Volleyball Qualifiers, claiming one of the two Olympic tickets to Paris 2024 looks like a very challenging task, but for a traditional volleyball power like Bulgaria, the chances of succeeding are not at all unrealistic.
“We’re working hard in practice, but it hasn’t been showing in the matches. I think we have to keep working and hopefully it is going to start showing,” continued Nikolov. “We need to grow as a team, because we are not playing as we could. Two of our most experienced players passed the torch, putting an end to their national team careers after EuroVolley, so we have new guys, some youngsters, and maybe some freshness. That’s one change for a start...”
Following the above-mentioned changes, Aleks is happy he may get to play together with his younger brother in the senior national team for the first time. Talented 16-year-old playmaker Simeon Nikolov received his first call to join the Lions for the upcoming Olympic qualifier in Xi’an and replace retired legend Georgi Bratoev. The two brothers have already shown what they can do together as a tandem at the youth and junior levels, but time has come to show it where it counts the most.
With the national team season approaching its end, of course, Aleks Nikolov is also looking further ahead to his second club season in the Italian SuperLega with Cucine Lube Civitanova, with which he earned silver last season. His solid performance in VNL 2022 earned him a professional contract with one of the world’s best clubs, reigning Italian champions and FIVB Volleyball Club World Championship silver medallists at the time. To move to Italy, the talented striker interrupted his full scholarship college education at Long Beach State University in the United States after a brilliant first season in the NCAA, when he was named 2022 National Player of the Year as the first-ever freshman to win the award, and took silver with the Long Beach squad.
“I think we are going to be a great team. Lube is a team with history, a team with a lot of good players...” Nikolov said, looking forward to his second season in Italy. “I hope we get the chance to fight for the gold medal again, like we did last season, and to advance to the semifinals and, hopefully, the final in the Champions League. I am optimistic towards the club season, for sure.”