Espinho, Portugal, June 14, 2006 - In charting the progress of the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour since the start of the international circuit 20 years ago on Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Portuguese Beach Volleyball legends Joao Brenha and Miguel Maia have figured prominently in the history of the sport.
Despite winning only two events in their 112 previous SWATCH-FIVB World Tour starts prior to this weekend’s US$200,000 Volkswagen Open de Portugal, Brenha and Maia have played a lot of Beach Volleyball on the Praia da Baia where the Portuguese host an international event for the 12th-straight season.
Espinho natives, Brenha and Maia have been competing internationally since 1994 when they placed ninth nearly 12 years ago in Enoshima, Japan. The next season, the Portuguese pair competed in 14 SWATCH stops with their first of eight “final four” appearance at the 1995 Puerto Rican stop.
Along with their SWATCH wins in Belgium in 1998 and Russia in 1999, Brenha and Maia are two of only 15 men’s and women’s players to compete in each of the three Olympic Beach Volleyball competitions in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004). Only two teams have competed together in all three Olympics together, including Brenha/Maia and John Child/Mark Heese of Canada.
It is only appropriate that the Portuguese and the Canadians played in the first Olympic Beach Volleyball medal match almost 10 years ago in Atlanta where Child and Heese posted a 12-5 and 12-8 win to capture the bronze medal. Prior to the setback, Brenha and Maia split a pair of matches with American tandems by defeating legendary Sinjin Smith and his partner Carl Henkel 15-13 before losing in the semi-finals to Atlanta silver medalists Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh 15-13.
Brenha and Maia missed medaling again in Sydney when they dropped their final two matches to eventual gold medalists Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana of the United States 15-12 and Jorg Ahmann and Axel Hager of Germany 12-6 and 12-9. Prior to the semi-finals, the Portuguese upset higher seeded teams from Argentina and Switzerland.
Brenha’s broken right ankle in a training session before the 2004 Espinho event hampered the Portuguese’s effort at the Athens Olympic Games were the pair placed ninth after being eliminated by eventual bronze medalists Patrick Heuscher and Stefan Kobel of Switzerland 21-18 and 21-19. The Swiss’ only setback in Athens was to gold medalists Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos of Portugal in a three-set semi-final match.
Seven-time Portuguese Beach Volleyball champions, Brenha and Maia also placed fourth at the 2003 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour on fabled Copacabana Beach where they had to forfeit their final two matches to Brazilians Emanuel/Ricardo and Marcio Araujo/Benjamin Insfran due to injuries.
While Beach Volleyball has been Brenha and Maia’s claim to “international fame,” the pair is recognized as two of Portugal’s top Volleyball players. Brenha and Maiar helped their club team to a championship last season. When talking Volleyball and Beach Volleyball in Portugal, Brenha and Maia are household names.
What’s next for the three-time Portuguese Olympians, who are now tied for third in SWATCH participations (113 events counting the 12th annual Volkswagen Open de Portugal) behind Child/Heese (115) and the Swiss Laciga (Martin and Paul) brothers (117)?
Beijing 2008 is still a goal for Brenha and Maia as they seek to become the only team to play in the first four Beach Volleyball Olympic competitions as Child’s career is on hold due to a right shoulder injury.
“It is still our goal,” said the 35-year old Maia, “but it will not be easy. The SWATCH tour is more developed now with the qualifiers more pressure-packed that the Main Draws. As long as we have our health along with being able to keep pace with the up-and-coming teams, we’ll have a chance.”
Playing a big part in Brenha and Maia’s Beach Volleyball development has been Coach Francisco Fidalgo, who has been working with the Portuguese team for the past 13 years. “In addition to being great players,” Fidalgo offered, “they are great people. It has been my pleasure to be a part Joao and Miguel’s successes. They are very coachable and easy to work with.”
In addition to the disappointment of no medals for their Olympic or SWATCH-FIVB World Championship efforts, Brenha and Maia are looking for their first-ever “final four” appearance in Espinho with a 1998 fifth as their best finish in 10 starts before this week’s event.
“I think you’ll find that it is tougher playing at home, instead of in another country,” said the 36-year old Brenha. “In addition to trying to please your family and friends, you have your country watching your performance. Also, winning any SWATCH event is tough. Over 2,500 players to competed internationally in at least one men’s event and only 128 have won at least one FIVB event. Only 54 players won two events.”
Injury issues have been a major factor for the Portuguese the past three seasons. “We are feeling pretty good right now,” added Maia, who has teamed with Brenha to rank 17th in career SWATCH earnings ($466,315). “We are excited to host the world’s best Beach Volleyball players again. Espinho has been a regular stage on the SWATCH tour and we hope we can play through the weekend. It will be a tough task to reach the semi-finals, but not an impossible achievement with some consistent play and a little luck.”
Espinho currently ranks behind Rio de Janeiro (14) and now ahead of Marseille (11) in hosting men’s SWATCH-FIVB World Tour events. Brenha and Maia have competed in 10 of the Espinho events together. Maia is also one of four players to compete in the previous 11 Espinho events along Martin Conde of Argentina, Emanuel Rego of Brazil and Javier Bosma of Spain.
If and when Brenha and Maia end their Beach Volleyball career, one thing is certain. A podium placement on the Praia da Baia would be a welcome sight for the Portuguese that were a few points and an injury away from Olympic and SWATCH-FIVB World Championship glory.