For the first time since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Brazil’s men’s national volleyball team won’t have the mercurial figure of head coach Bernardo ‘Bernardinho’ Rezende on the sidelines during the Olympics.
Instead, when the South Americans try to defend the gold medal they won four years ago in Rio this summer in Tokyo, Renan Dal Zotto will be at the helm.
Bernardinho, known for his emotional outbursts in the bench, but mainly for assembling arguably the winningest team in men’s volleyball history, stepped down at the beginning of 2017.
However, you wouldn’t describe Dal Zotto as new. Even though the 59-year-old Dal Zotto will indeed be at his first Olympics in a coaching position, he’s more than familiar with the biggest stage of international sports.
“I’ve been to three Olympics as a player, one as a TV analyst and I was the director for Brazil’s national teams at Rio 2016,” he said. “These were all different experiences and I think all of them helped prepare me for this moment on their own ways. I think Brazil did a good job in the first three years of the quad and we’re making sure we’re taking care of every detail so the team is in position to perform at its best in Tokyo.”
Brazil has, indeed, done a solid job since Dal Zotto took over. Not only have the reigning Olympic champions managed to maintain their top spot at the FIVB world rankings — which has been occupied by no other national team since 2001 — but they also confirmed their status of medal contenders in Tokyo by winning the 2017 World Grand Champions Cup and the 2019 World Cup. The team was also one of the first to secure its spot at the Japanese capital during last year’s international qualifiers.
The secret to their success, says Dal Zotto, is continuity. Even though the team has a new coach and some new players, the core group remained the same, including several of Bernardinho’s assistants and potentially 10 returning players, such as the team captain, his son Bruno Rezende.
The presence of the coach who gave the country four Olympic medals — two gold and two silver, three world titles and numerous World League victories — can still be felt at the team’s training center in the city of Saquarema as Dal Zotto adopted a similar style to manage the players and built his coaching style upon virtually the same values Bernardinho did.
“To continue the great work Bernardo did for so many years is obviously a huge responsibility, but Brazilian volleyball is now a very mature project,” Dal Zotto said. “To keep up with such a high standard of excellence, it’s not a one-man’s job. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by great professionals, several of which wanted to stay after Bernardo’s departure, so it’s not like there was a massive change in the program. We’ve been trying to be coherent and to work with the responsibility our positions demand and I’m proud of what we’ve done so far.”
That both the former and the current coach think alike is by no means a coincidence. Dal Zotto and Bernardinho were teammates at the Brazilian national team and were both part of the so-called Silver Generation, which boosted volleyball’s status in the country when it took silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
In Tokyo, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Brazil and the third-ranked USA men met in the final for the third-time in Olympic history.
Since Dal Zotto took over, the teams have met eight times in major competitions and Brazil won six of them, but the Americans prevailed in arguably the most important meetings, the bronze medal match of the 2018 Volleyball Nations League and the semifinals of the same tournament in 2019.
“It’s certainly one of the best teams in the world and what stands out to me is the balance they have between basically every aspect of the game,” Dal Zotto said about the Americans. “They always have a very efficient playing system and they use all the fundamentals as no other team does. They don’t have a clear weakness, but they can, as any team, get vulnerable under certain circumstances, so whenever we play them we need to be extremely focused and very creative to find solutions.”
The USA has delivered what’s arguably the most upsetting setback of Dal Zotto’s playing career when the 1984 team that featured Karch Kiraly, Pat Powers and Dave Saunders defeated Brazil at the Olympic gold-medal match after losing to the South Americans in straight sets during pool play.
The scenario could repeat once again in Tokyo: The Brazilians and Americans are both in Pool B and will meet on July 30, but that’s not something that keeps the coach awake at night.
“This kind of thing can happen during the Olympics,” Dal Zotto said. “But whatever happened in the past will have no impact as each tournament has its own history. I’m sure we’ll have multiple opportunities to write a story with a nice ending in Tokyo and we’re preparing to not let any of them slip between our fingers.”