By Mark Meadows

MILAN (Reuters) - In a Milan arena more used to welcoming Coldplay and other rock bands, spectators have been raising the roof for the sport of volleyball.

A game enjoyed by millions at school or on the beach has long struggled to move out of the shadow of sports such as basketball but the men's world championship in Italy has so far been a roaring success, if judged by fan turnout and noise.

"For me the most important thing is not who wins the world championship; the most important thing is to promote volleyball in the organizing country and the world," International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) president Jizhong Wei told Reuters.

"I'm very happy. Even when Italy didn't play there were lots of fans. I observed the recent world basketball championship in Turkey and in some matches where the host country did not play, they had few spectators."

Milan's 12,000-capacity Forum was packed out for Italy's three first-round matches while Verona's arena could not accommodate all the fans who wanted to see holders Brazil against Cuba.

There were calls for a big screen to be erected outside, given the huge demand for already sold-out seats, and a hospitality area outside the venue has been doing good business.

"We've managed to feed 1,600 people per hour outside the arena," Stefano Bianchini, chief executive of the Verona matches, told reporters.


More than 3,000 people filled Modena's arena to watch Cameroon in a championship which is seen as wide open with many strong sides from all parts of the world having a chance of glory.

Puerto Rico's Luis Fenito Rodriguez, who works for a pharmaceutical company, was so keen to play that he is still a regular middle blocker in the national team at the age of 41.

Men's volleyball is suddenly on the front pages of the newspapers in Italy, where the sport has always had a decent following though far less than soccer or cycling.

The national team have even been at the forefront of the government's road safety advertising campaign during the tournament.

The positive trend is especially pleasing to Italian volleyball bosses as the game has traditionally been regarded by many as a women's sport.

"I'm very happy, the arenas are full and there is so much enthusiasm. We have to thank the federation," Italy coach Andrea Anastasi said.


Problems linger though despite the general jubilation.

The matches are not being screened on the Italian state broadcaster's three main channels and instead feature on two lesser-known stations.

There are also fears the format is overly long and complex, an issue which has seriously dogged world cups in other sports such as cricket.

The growth of beach volleyball, with its tanned athletes and party atmosphere, has made traditional indoor volleyball look old-fashioned in some eyes while the world championship will always play second fiddle to the Olympic competition.

This is especially true for current Olympic champions the United States, who know further exposure at home will come only with success at London 2012 rather than in the worlds given the raft of bigger sports competing for the airwaves.

"I know everyone here is thinking that we should be on the podium at the closure ceremony on October 10 but volleyball isn't that easy," U.S. coach Alan Knipe said.

"We are building a new team capable of achieving this in London 2012. We still have very good players at home and they will be introduced gradually into the team during the next two years to decrease the age average before the Olympics."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)