Forty-five years ago, when American sports executives were working to grow soccer’s profile in the country, they looked to Pele, the legendary Brazilian star. The sport’s icon had won his third World Cup just five years before and the New York Cosmos thought he was just the name to promote the North American Soccer League’s image internationally.

Times have certainly changed and the scenario is not quite the same, but there were similar expectations when Brazilian volleyball star Sheilla Castro was unveiled Wednesday on a Zoom call as the newest addition of the upcoming Athletes Unlimited Volleyball League, the latest attempt of creating professional women’s volleyball in America.

The competition begins in February in Nashville. Read about it here.

“I’ve given a lot of thought to it and I have every expectation about it,” said Jon Patricof, the CEO and co-founder of Athletes Unlimited. “Volleyball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States and we believe our league and the addition of Sheilla and other players will help the sport breaking through to a level of awareness and cultural relevance in a very similar way to what happened with soccer.

“I was a young New Yorker when Pele joined the Cosmos and I remember those days. Pele is up to these days globally recognized as one of the greatest athletes of all-time and I believe Sheilla can do the same with volleyball.”

The 37-year-old opposite might have not yet reached the same status of her famous compatriot, but it’s hard to argue that she’s one of the most accomplished players in the history of volleyball and one of the few with the ability of drawing thousands of eyeballs from her native South America all the way to Asia, no matter where she’s playing.

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Brazil’s Sheilla Castro passes as Dani Lin looks on/FIVB photo

A gold medalist at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, Sheilla is one of the most charismatic figures in the sport and has celebrity status in Brazil. The United States has a long and victorious volleyball history and the presence of accomplished players like Jordan Larson and Karsta Lowe won’t make it look like the Brazilian is punching below her weight, which was perhaps the case with Pele back in the day.

Athletes Unlimited hopes her participation in the six-week league will take it to another level, especially with the international audience.

“I really hope I can contribute to the growth of the league and the sport in the same way Pele did,” Sheilla said. “Having a solid professional league in such a strong sports nation as the United States would hugely benefit international volleyball and I want to be a part of it and help it develop from the first season on.

“When they first reached out, my first reaction was that I wasn’t really interested, but when I started talking to people and knowing more about their plans, it became a no-brainer.”

Unlike Pele, who moved to New York in the twilight of his career, Sheilla still has at least one big career goal and she’s hoping her two-month stint in Nashville helps with that.

After winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals, the veteran was devastated after Brazil took a tough fifth-place finish four years ago at home in Rio. After that, her international career was presumed over as she moved away from the sport to give birth to the twins Liz and Ninna in 2018 and seriously flirted with a move to beach volleyball.

But then her competitive spirit came calling and she decided to return to the court, spending the pandemic-shortened season with home team Minas Tenis Clube, where she was teammates with American Deja McClendon, who will also compete in the Athletes Unlimited Volleyball League. Sheilla also returned to the national team.

“My international career didn’t end the way I wanted in Rio, so I decided to return and do everything on my power to get another chance in Tokyo,” the Brazilian added. “Playing in the United States will help me accomplish that.

“The season will be shorter, which will be good to my body, and I’ll be playing with great players and challenging my game in a format that will demand a lot from each of us every single day. I spoke with the Brazilian national team coach Jose Roberto Guimaraes about this possibility and we thought it would be a great opportunity, so here I am.”

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