Paris, France, June 23, 2007 - The man has been playing Beach Volleyball longer than any other player in the US$600,000 Henkel Grand Chelem, and Franco Neto hopes that tomorrow will be the day he becomes the oldest player to win a SWATCH-FIVB World Tour gold medal on the Champs de Mars centre court near the Eiffel Tower.
With a near-capacity centre court crowd cheering him on, the 40-year old Franco teamed with 24-year old Brazilian partner Pedro Cunha to win a pair of matches here Saturday to advance to his 30th SWATCH-FIVB World Tour gold medal match against Brazilian rivals Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos Sunday afternoon.
Before the second-seeded Emanuel and Ricardo advanced to their 36th FIVB gold medal match with a 21-16 and 21-15 win in 46 minutes over 14th-seeded Mike Lambert and Stein Metzger, Franco and Cunha scored a 21-18 and 21-18 win in 55 minutes over sixth-seeded Julius Brink and Christoph Dieckmann of Germany.
The semi-final wins were the second Saturday for both Brazilian teams, who competed in last week’s SWATCH finale in Portugal where Emanuel and Ricardo stop Franco’s second bid this season with Cunha to win a FIVB title with an 18-21, 21-17 and 19-17 victory in 69 minutes in Espinho.
Facing a 14-12 deficit to top-seeded Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal of the United States in their first match Saturday, Franco and Cunha scored five of the last six points in the match to post a 17-21, 21-14 and 17-15 win in 62 minutes. “It was a great comeback against a strong team,” Franco added, who placed fifth with 2006 Henkel Grand Chelem with Cunha after not qualifying with Tande Ramos in 2005.
The winningest men’s team in FIVB history with 25 gold medals, 44 podium placements and over $1.3-million in earnings together. Emanuel and Ricardo will be playing in their first Paris finale after placing ninth and third in the first two Henkel Grand Chelem events.
“First of all, I have always thought about the good of the team instead of individual accomplishments,” said Franco, who played in his first SWATCH stop in 1990 when he placed third with Atlanta 1996 Olympic partner Roberto Lopes in Rio de Janeiro. “However, winning a tournament at my age will be something special.”
During 18 seasons of international competition, Franco has advanced to a “final four” each year with only the 2002 campaign being a non-podium placement season. American Mike Dodd holds the record as the oldest player (39 years, two months, seven days) to win a SWATCH stop when he and his Atlanta 1996 silver medal Olympic partner Mike Whitmarsh won a FIVB event in November 1999 at Fortaleza, Brazil.
Franco’s last title was when he was 38 when he and Tande upset Emanuel and Ricardo in a March 2004 finale in Cape Town, South Africa. Franco has had four chances to take the record from Dodd starting with two gold medal appearances with Cunha last season in China and Poland and twice this season in Bahrain and Portugal. Dodd is coaching Gibb and Rosenthal and watched Franco and Cunha’s comeback win Saturday.
The Henkel Grand Chelem, which staged the women’s semi-finals Saturday, concludes Sunday when the winning teams shared the $43,500 first-place prizes. The Henkel Grand Chelem is also part of the qualifying process for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games that runs through July 20, 2008.