Brazil's ladies target World Championship glory
It was a spectacular, record-breaking season for the FIVB World Grand Prix, with 28 teams participating in a thrilling competition in countries across the world. After Bulgaria in Group 3 and Belgium in Group 2 - the best of this year’s five debutants - hot favourites Brazil clinched the title in the Finals showdown for the Group 1 teams in Tokyo. And, as has become the norm at this historic 22nd staging of the annual tournament for the top national ladies' teams in the world, the win produced another record: Brazil triumphed for the tenth time.
The Japanese were defeated 3-0 (25-15, 25-18, 27-25) in the final match, but could take some consolation from the fact that their silver medal earned them a historic first podium at the 22nd staging of the World Grand Prix. And bronze medalists Russia also laid the foundation for their title defence at the FIVB Women’s World Championship in Italy in less than a month’s time, with their first Grand Prix medal for five years.
Coach Ze Roberto’s Brazilian team were deserved winners. The Brazilian ball wizards, with top attacker Sheilla Castro and captain Fabiana Claudino pulling the strings, dominated the preliminary round with nine wins from nine matches, losing just three sets. They then bounced back in the final round from a shock 2-3 defeat to Turkey to record four 3-0 wins and emphatically defend their position as the number one team in the world.
“From the start of the Finals, when we lost to Turkey, it has been difficult. After that loss, we recovered little by little and were finally able to win our tenth World Grand Prix. I want to thank my team and my staff, we won under a lot of pressure,” said coach Ze Roberto. Three Brazilians made it into the competition’s Dream Team: middle blocker Fabiana Claudino, best setter Danielle Lins, and best opposite spiker Sheilla Castro. However, as soon as the celebrations started to die down, the Brazilian team immediately turned the focus of its attention to the highlight of the season – the FIVB Women’s World Championship Italy 2014.
“After a dream year in 2013 and a tenth victory in the World Grand Prix, it goes without saying that we will be striving to finally get our hands on this title,” said Ze Roberto. As well as the historic tenth title in the FIVB World Grand Prix, Brazil’s volleyball ladies have won almost everything there is to win in recent years: Olympic gold in 2012, the Grand Champions Cup and South American Championship in 2013. So much so that it makes it difficult to believe that the skilful South Americans are still waiting for their first ever World Championship title.
A glance at the history of the World Championship reveals exactly why Ze Roberto is wary of the threat posed by one team in particular: defending champions Russia. The Russian giants defeated Brazil in the final to win the World Championship title in 2006 and 2010, meaning that the Brazilians’ three silver medals (including 1994) remain their greatest success to date in the World Championship. “Russia is difficult every time. They are very talented,” said Ze Roberto, assessing his arch-rivals. And the reigning European Champions showed at this year’s FIVB World Grand Prix that they are returning to their old strength: they overcame China 3-2 in their final match to secure third place and their first medal since silver in 2009. Russian captain Ekaterina Kosianenko was keen to point out that they are still a work in progress: “We need to work a lot on all the parts of our game to improve.”
However, Brazil’s biggest challenge at the finals of the FIVB World Grand Prix came from hosts Japan, who finally got their hands on their first medal. The team boasting MVP Yuko Sano won a record eight matches in a row before they eventually suffered defeat to Brazil in the deciding game. “We faced Brazil, the number one team in the world, and they made me realise that there are many things we need to improve if we want to catch up with them. We learned a lot,” said captain Saori Kimura, who expects her team to put up a strong fight at the World Championship. “It’s good that we got the silver medal, but our goal was gold.”
Brazil’s coach Ze Roberto sees Japan as the country which has improved most in recent years: “Japan, under coach Manabe, is growing significantly, and the fact that they were able to get the silver medal is a big achievement for Japanese volleyball. Japan is one of the best teams in the world.” Fourth-placed Turkey also showed that they have closed the gap to join the world elite, not least with their shock victory against Brazil. “We played a wonderful World Grand Prix. We finished on the same points as Russia and I think we did very great things. Apart from China, we beat the best teams in the world – Brazil, Italy, Russia, Serbia, Japan, USA – so we must be really happy with that,” commented Turkey coach Massimo Barbolini.
Fifth-placed China also remains on the up under coach “Jenny” Lang Ping, who believes her “young players gained very valuable experience at this World Grand Prix”, which applies to the 28 teams in this year’s record-breaking competition.
The volleyball world is now looking forward to the 23rd edition of the FIVB World Grand Prix. Next year's Finals will be hosted by the United States – the five-time winners narrowly missed out on the finals this year – in Omaha, from July 22-26. The US will be joined by the five highest ranked teams from the Preliminary Round in Group 1. Brazil will have its sights set on title number eleven…