The men’s volleyball tournament at Maracanãzinho will surely rank as one of the highlights of Rio 2016 with eight teams having a realistic chance of making the podium. World no. 1 USA lost their first two group stage matches before staging a comeback to make it through to the semi-finals, where they were eventually beaten 3-2 by Italy. Brazil knocked out defending champions Russia 3-0 in the other semi-final, avenging their loss in the final at London 2012, only to come face to face with first round opponents Italy once again in the final.
“This was the most evenly matched men’s Olympic tournament since the 1980s. There were many teams fighting for the gold,” commented Raul Lozano, the former Argentine international player and current coach of Iran, who took Iran right through to the quarter-finals in Rio where they were defeated 3-0 by Italy.
The assessment was backed up by leading American player Matt Anderson, who commented “We had eight teams who were fighting for medals throughout the tournament. When the difference between competitors is so fine, victory can swing either way for any team.”
Our best quality is resistance. That’s what got us the gold. Bruno Rezende Brazil - Bruno Rezende Brazil
2015 European and World League champions France were knocked out in the first round after losing three matches including a decisive final match against Brazil, who themselves squeaked through to the quarter-finals after finishing in fourth place in Pool A. Ahead of them were pool winners Italy, as well as surprise second place finishers Canada and the USA in third.
Argentina and Poland took the top two spots over Russia in pool B with four wins each. Iran, competing in their first ever Olympic volleyball tournament, was a surprise qualifier to the quarter-finals thanks to two convincing 3-0 victories over Cuba and Egypt.
Italy, USA, Russia and Brazil all made it through the quarter-finals with minimal difficulty, eliminating Iran, Poland, Canada and Argentina respectively. In the semi-finals Italy finally defeated the American team in a thrilling marathon of two and a half hours, which came down to a fifth set tie-break won 15-9 by the European team.
Brazil set Maracanãzinho alight
The 12,000 fans present at Maracanãzinho were treated to a dramatic final day of competition at Rio 2016 as the home team won gold over Italy 3-0 (25-22, 28-26, 26-24). The match was one of the most hotly anticipated events of the Olympics in Brazil, where the sport is second only to football in popularity. It was also vindication for a team who had failed to win a major world title since 2010 or an Olympic title since 2004.
Of the team crowned champions 12 years ago in Athens only Sergio, now aged 40 years old, remained. On the side-lines was the Brazilian team’s legendary coach Bernardinho who has presided over Brazil as they won three world titles (2002, 2006 & 2010), two Olympic gold medals and nine World League titles in what has been an illustrious career both for him and the team.
The team, among them the coach’s son Bruno, were looking to take revenge for losses in the Olympic finals at both London and Beijing to the USA and Russia respectively, where each time they were rated firm favourites.
Led by their superb spiker Wallace, who scored a spectacular 20 points in the final, the team finally found its form after a slow start in the group stages. They then eased past Argentina (3-1) and Russia to set up a showdown with Italy in the final.
The Brazilians were made to fight for their three set victory, particularly in the second set where the Italians at one stage had set point. However too many serious errors meant that the Italians ultimately fell short of the top spot once again. Despite winning an Olympic medal six times, the Azzurri are yet to win an elusive gold medal.
“It was a very tense match,” said Bruno Rezende. “The two teams made a lot of mistakes in the first set. We stayed aggressive during serve. Our best quality is resistance. That’s what got us the gold.”
“They deserved the gold medal,” Emanuele Birarelli said after the match as he congratulated his opponents. “I’m proud of how we played. We could have done better but we were only a step away from gold. I’m a little bit sad and bitter. We could have made life harder for them. But we didn’t have much energy left after the semi-final. We were close in the second set but couldn’t finish it off. We didn’t serve well even though that’s usually our strong point.”
Bronze went to the USA who defeated Russia 3-2 after coming back from two sets down. The match was settled with an ace in the tie-break from Matt Anderson, one of the outstanding players of the tournament.
The Americans brought a young team to Rio, with eight players who had never previously competed at an Olympic Games before. Despite their youth they were considered among the favourites after winning the World Cup in 2015.
“This wasn’t what we’d planned and hoped for, but it’s a huge honour to go home with an Olympic medal and we’ll wear them with pride,” said Micah Christenson after the match.
China too strong for Serbia in the women’s final
A young Chinese team were up against top-form Serbia in the final on 20 August at Maracanãzinho stadium. They managed to pull out a four set win to take home their country’s third gold medal in the event. It was Serbia’s first time in the final and first ever medal in women’s volleyball at the Games. Despite a dominating 3-0 win over China in the first round, the Asian powerhouse turned the tables in the final to defeat Serbia 19-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23.
The USA won the third-place match which took place earlier on in the day but their 3-1 victory over the Netherlands will be small consolation for the world number ones, silver medallists in 2008 and 2012 and world champions in 2014.
China’s last Olympic title was in Los Angeles 1984, when their current coach Lang Ping was a member of the winning team. “Before the 2016 tournament we never thought we could win gold,” said the coach, who also led the USA to silver in 2008.
“I think we were lucky,” she continued. “Our young players weren’t very good at the beginning but they knew how to raise their game in the key moments.” The team came under the pressure early on in the tournament, scraping into the quarter-finals in fourth place in their group after victories over Puerto Rico and Italy.
Victory began to look like a genuine possibility for the Chinese after victory over home team Brazil, double Olympic champions, in the quarter-final. The match went down to the wire, with China clinching the win 15-13 in the fifth set tie-break. Their 3-1 semi-final win against the Netherlands was a considerably less tense affair, setting them up for a rematch with Serbia in the final.
Our young players weren’t very good at the beginning but they knew how to raise their game in the key moments. Lang Ping China - Lang Ping China
On the other side of the draw, the Serbian team finished third in pool B behind the USA and the Netherlands. They ramped up the pressure in the quarter-final, beating Russia 3-0, before pulling off a breath-taking win over the American team in the semi-finals. Momentum swung wildly between the two teams until Serbia finally avenged their first round loss, taking the win in the fifth set (20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13).
Serbia took the first set in the final 25-19 thanks to some powerful serving and outstanding smashes from leading spiker Brankica Mihajlovic but China equalised in the next set (25-17) then in a definitive third set took control of the match. From that point they never looked back, winning eight points in a row at one point in the fourth set before going on to win the match and the gold medal with a spectacular smash from Zhu Ting.
The return of star player Foluke Akinradewo, who was forced to retire from the semi-final due to a leg injury, help buoy American spirits for the bronze medal match. They were able to return to their previous good form to win 25-23, 25-27, 25-22, 25-19 over the Netherlands.
“No team has come here without wanting to win gold,” said Akinradewo after the match. “But the bronze is as special for me because we were able to come together after a hard loss where we were two points away from winning!”
Aged 55, Lang Ping has earned her second gold medal, this time leading a young group of players who got off to a slow start in the 2016 tournament. “With such a young team you never know. One day it’s great, the next it isn’t. We needed to be patient and take the matches one by one. I’m so happy for these young girls. They’ve worked so hard!”