Qualifying for the Finals of the 2024 Volleyball Nations League or for the Olympic Games in Paris are not among the immediate goals set for the Bulgarian women’s national team, but this is certainly among the dreams of their brightest star, libero Zhana Todorova. As she told Volleyball World in an exclusive interview just days before the start of VNL 2014, Bulgaria will do their best to chase the victory in every single match, because each game can impact the “goals and dreams for the future of the national team.”

The 27-year-old libero returns to the national team for the first time since VNL 2022. After suffering a knee injury she skipped the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship and the entire 2022-2023 club and national team season.

Zhana Todorova in action during VNL 2022

Zhana Todorova in action during VNL 2022

Todorova has been part of the senior national team since 2013, but in the mean time she earned team and individual accolades at age-category events as well. When Bulgaria celebrated bronze at the 2017 FIVB Volleyball U23 Women’s World Championship, she was named on the Dream Team as the Best Libero of the tournament, following up on the same recognition from two years earlier, at the 2015 U20 World Championship.

With the senior national team, when Bulgaria triumphed in the 2021 CEV European Golden League, Zhana Todorova was honoured as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the competition. Three years earlier, they won gold at the 2018 CEV European Golden League and gold at the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Challenger Cup, where Todorova was the best receiver of the tournament. In the summer of 2019, when the best 24 teams in the world competed for Olympic tickets, Todorova was by far the best defender among all six FIVB Tokyo Volleyball Qualification pools, registering an impressive average of 4.17 digs per set.

Now enjoying a height of 1.70m, Zhana was only about 1.40m tall when she went to the volleyball hall at the age of 13. The Maritza Plovdiv coaches were close to turning her away, but gave her a chance to find out she has the right feel for the ball. She has spent pretty much her entire club career so far with her native Maritza Plovdiv. The only exception was the 2021-2022 season, when she achieved a golden treble in Ukraine with the team of Prometey Dnipro. She is one of the pillars and a key contributor to Maritza’s golden age of domination in Bulgaria, having helped the club collect eight of their record-breaking 10 consecutive national titles and six of their nine national cup trophies, as well as achieve some huge upsets of big European teams in the CEV Champions League.

How is your preparation for the VNL going?

“The preparation started about two-three weeks ago. Of course, different players joined at different times depending on when their club seasons ended. There are a lot young girls on the squad this year. At 27 years of age, I am one of the most experienced on the team. I am happy to be part of the national team again after a season and a half skipped because of an injury. I have always been of the opinion that it is a responsibility and an honour to wear the national team jersey. Matches for the national team have been the most emotional matches of my career. I hope I can help teach the younger players something the same way I took example from the older players in the past. Such continuity is very important for the growth we desire.”

In previous VNL seasons, the stated goal for your national team was to avoid relegation. This time staying in the VNL is guaranteed. What is the goal that has been set for you?

“We have fought for the right to be in the VNL, among the best teams in the world. One can learn a lot from these matches. Of course, our objective in every single match is the victory. Each game can impact the World Ranking, and hence, our goals and dreams for the future of our national team. So that’s our main goal. I have always dreamed of reaching the VNL Finals, but we don’t have that set as a goal for the team. I don’t think it is that good that there will not be any relegated teams this year, because fighting to remain among the best was also in a way a motivating factor.”

Is there any talk within the team about the remote possibility of qualifying for the Olympics?

“No, it hasn’t been mentioned. But as far as I am concerned personally, when I started with volleyball years ago, my dream was to play with the national team, and now my dream is to play with the national team at the Olympics. I will do my best to help the team experience such an emotion and such an honour.”


Todorova is happy to be back with the national team

Last season you returned to Maritza Plovdiv after a two-year absence and registered another golden double in Bulgaria. What is the secret behind your club’s success?

“Maritza is my native club, the club of my heart. It has now collected 10 consecutive national titles and I was part of eight of them. We’ve just had another successful season. There are many components to success, including the leadership, the entire staff and the players, all of whom need to work in harmony. A little bit of luck is also always needed to be successful. At Maritza, we have good teamwork and a common goal that unites us in our everyday work. And that goal is to achieve victories in the Champions League. I hope that the times when Maritza is able to defeat some European powerhouses in the Champions League will be back soon.”

What does it feel like to live in such an ancient city like Plovdiv? What do you like doing in your free time? Whom do you go out with?

“As you know, Plovdiv is the oldest living city in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Whenever we have had visiting teams from abroad, their players have been enchanted by the charms of this city, its history, its culture, its atmosphere. I enjoy the slower pace of life here. I like going out with friends, especially in the Kapana arts-and-crafts quarter, I like going to the theatres… We also have a well-preserved Roman Amphitheatre, one of many amazing historic sites in Plovdiv. The names of famous Roman rulers carved in the stone, indicating their seats, are still preserved, in addition to various statues and columns. I go there to enjoy a concert under the stars or just pop in to explore and get a feel of history. I enjoy strolls in the atmosphere of the Old Town, beautifully situated on three hills in the very heart of Plovdiv. I also love Bulgaria as a whole. I find it very beautiful. Outside Plovdiv, I love going to the mountains. We also have great beaches at the Black Sea… Among the volleyball players, I often go out with Eva Yaneva - she loves the city too – with Vangeliya Rachkovska, Dobrina Hristoskova, Lora Slavcheva…”

Finally, name the six athletes you would like to play with on the volleyball team of your dreams.

“Maja Ognjenovic would be the setter of my dream team, and Tijana Boskovic would be the opposite. Gabi Guimaraes of Brazil and Britt Herbots of Belgium would be the outside hitters. Carol of Brazil and Robin De Kruijf would be the middle blockers. It would be a dream come true to be the libero of such a team.”

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