Brazil shatters a myth

The Brazil team which won the men's title for the third time in a row.-AP

LIKE in football, Brazil has carved a niche for itself in volleyball. By winning the Olympics, World championship and World Cup, the South American country proved that it is the No. 1 team in the world today. And by clinching the World League title in Belgrade in July for the third time in succession it has showed its class beyond doubt.

Brazil has many specials. Its Samba, Carnival and dazzling football are as famous as its rain forest and now its brilliant spiking and superb combination attacks on the volleyball courts, mixing power and artistry are to the fore. The Yellow shirt is becoming prominent everywhere, causing as much fear as in football grounds.

From youth to men's competitions, Brazil's stamp of class is all pervasive. It is winning in every section and its women's team is also equally strong. In fact, the South American nation has changed the volleyball world topsy turvy in the last five years, taking the initiative out of Europe. There is more football in Europe, but Brazil steals the show in the game. Similarly, there is more volleyball in Europe, but now Brazil has made it difficult for the Europeans in every major competition.

Look at its record in the World championship. Till 1998 Brazil was never in the first three, except in 1982 at Buenos Aires where it lost to USSR in the final. But in 2002 it captured the World championship for the first time and became the second non-European team to win the top honours, besides the USA which defeated Russia in the final of the 1986 Paris World championship. Russia captured the World championship six times, Czechoslovakia twice, Poland and GDR once each. And Italy made it a hat-trick winning it from 1990 to 1998. In fact, the World League is tougher than World championship and World Cup as the teams have to play both home and away matches twice at every stage till they reach the final rounds. The event normally stretches to three to four months.

Even the World League was Italy's for nearly a decade. Such was the domination of Europeans in the game. Now Brazil has shattered the myth of one continent domination by making it three in a row in the heartland of Europe, Belgrade.

For years Brazil was known for its erratic and unpredictable game. But that is history now and the Brazil coaches have brought in discipline and control in their play.

Of course, the threat from Europe for Brazil has not gone completely. Serbia and Montenegro, which won the Sydney Olympics title in 2000 despite being torn by a Civil War and partition, is becoming its main challenger these days, pushing aside countries like Russia and Italy. This time too it clashed for the League honours and Brazil shattered Serbia's dreams.

It was the same Brazil that was shocked by the lowly Portugal in the second round of the inter-continental tournament and that broke the South American team's 25 games winning streak till 2003. "We are going to do much better in Belgrade", were the ominous words of Brazilian coach Bernardo Rezende before the final round and his team stood by his words. In the first set the team was nervous, facing the huge partisan crowd. But in the next three sets Brazil showed its class, silencing the home fans with masterly skills for its fifth League title (three in a row). Overcoming the psychological pressure, the Olympic champion put up an incredible performance and its coach said after the tie "There were two demonstrations of good play during the tourney — Serbia v Poland match — because they could fight back after two sets and the second demonstration was that of Brazil, which did the same in the second set."

It is clear now that the intense tussle for the World League is between Brazil and Serbia. In the 2003 final the World champion fought brilliantly to down Serbia 25-16, 21-25, 19-25, 25-23, 31-29 and in the 2004 semi-finals Brazil beat Serbia again at 25-23, 32-30, 25-20 and on the opening day of the 2005 finals in Belgrade the South Americans got the better of Serbia at 25-21, 23-25, 26-24, 25-21. After eliminating Poland and Cuba from the race they clashed again in the final and Brazil raced to an exciting 14-25, 25-14, 25-19, 25-16 victory.

Cuba, which won the League title in 1998 and bagged five silvers and two bronzes in the 90s, and Poland were the surprise finalists in this edition. That Italy and Russia could not make it this time showed the real `power' struggle at the top. In the 2002 World championship it was Brazil, Russia and France in that order for the top three slots. Three years later Serbia won its fourth World League medal in the last four years (silver for 2005) and Cuba got the bronze, beating Poland 25-23, 22-25, 24-26, 25-18, 15-13. Cuba fielded a young and talented side. Poland was equally strong. But Poland committed mistakes in defence and while receiving the Cuban serves. However, the solidity of the Polish team put Cuba in trouble for some time before its victory. It was a big comeback for the Cubans after a gap of five years. "We are on the podium. It's important for our families and for all the people of Cuba. This victory was hard to get and it means we will have to work even more harder in future," said Cuba's captain Pavel Pimienta after the match.

It was a hard grind for the four finalists. When the competition was reduced to 12 teams from around the world in May, Brazil was still away from the title and was shaky. With three pools of four teams each they had to fight hard. Brazil, Venezuela (with its new coach Eliseo Ramos aiming to improve its 13th finish), Portugal (which had a three-win and nine-defeat record last year) and Japan (which did not win a single match in 2004), formed Group `A'. Brazil made it.

Olympic silver medallist Italy, expecting a new beginning without big names like Andrea Giani, Samuele Papi, Andrea Sartoretti and Damiano Pippi, and under the coach Gianpaolo Montali, crashed out along with France, which tried its best to reach the final for the first time, in Group `B' in which Bulgaria, which surprised everyone last year by reaching the final round, and Cuba fought for places. Only Cuba could make it.

Serbia, already assured of a place in the final phase, clubbed with Poland, which had a foreign coach for the first time, Argentina and Greece in Group `C'. Poland, ranked seventh, fought well to clinch a place, sidelining the eighth placed Greece and Argentina.

Brazil, Serbia, Cuba and Poland finished in that order, cornering the top four slots.

Brazil's men squad recorded a hat-trick of title wins in Belgrade. Eight days later its women's squad lowered the colours of the World champion Italy at 25-20, 22-25, 25-21, 27-29, 15-7 to capture the World Grand Prix honours for the fifth time at Sendai (Japan). And Brazil defended its title in style, sidelining Italy and the Olympic gold medallist China.

After early elimination of some national squads through group matches, six teams — Brazil, Italy, China, Cuba, Japan and the Netherlands — assembled at Sendai to fight it out for the prestigious title and the top prize money of 200,000 dollars in a round robin. Like its men's outfit, which had to battle Serbia in Bulgaria, Brazil had to fight Japan on its home court, but the host turned out to be a small fry for the defending champion. But the real challenge came from China, which wallopped the South American side in straight sets, a result that made it jittery before its final clash with Italy. However, Brazil rose to the occasion as the 23-year-old Paul Pegueno steered the team to an exciting win in front of over 8000 spectators with her brilliant performance that fetched her the Most Valuable Player award at the end of the 15-game show.

It was Pegueno who got the last two points that sparked wild celebrations in the Canaries' camp and Brazil topped the league table with a 4-1 record. It was the only squad to have that four win and one loss finish. "This victory is huge for us" said Brazil's head coach Jose Guimaraes after the final tie.

It was not a smooth passage for the six teams, including Brazil. Every team had to face the challenge from unexpected quarters.

Brazil sank in 69 minutes against China as Yang Hao and Zhou Suhong spiked brilliantly to give a good start. But it turned out to be the only bad patch for the South Americans.

However, Italy's stunning loss to the Netherlands in a five-setter ruined its chances. With a 3-1 record each both Italy and Brazil clashed for the title and Brazil missed a series of match points in the fourth set. But it dominated the decider completely to clinch the crucial match.

The final rankings: 1. Brazil (4-1), 2. Italy (3-2), 3. China (3-2), 4. Cuba (3-3), 5. Japan (1-4), 6. The Netherlands (1-4). — A Special Correspondent