(A video interview in Portuguese with Flavio is at the end of this story)
(Assista à entrevista em vídeo em português com o central Flavio no fim da reportagem)
Brazil could have as many as 10 players from its 2016 Rio Olympic volleyball gold-medal team returning to defend their title next year at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
But with the the international retirements of libero Sergio Santos and outside hitter Lipe Fonteles, and if the 2019 international season (and the FIVB World Cup in particular) is to be taken as an indication of what the South Americans’ roster might look like next summer, the odds are we’ll see a significant group of newcomers as part of the defending champions’ Olympic team.
A handful of new faces were tested by head coach Renan Dal Zotto during the 2019 international season and most of them have clearly passed, including those in serious contention to make the Olympic squad. Opposite Alan de Souza, setter Fernando ‘Cachopa’ Kreling and middle-blocker Flavio Gualberto are the most prominent names of this group.
Of all three, Alan seems to be the one closer to securing his ticket to Tokyo as the immediate backup of Rio 2016 Olympian Wallace de Souza. The 25-year-old, 6-foot-6 opposite had a phenomenal international season with Brazil, being elected the most valuableplayer of both the South American Championships and the recently-ended World Cup, in which he was the fourth-best scorer, the third-best hitter and the seventh-best server.
“My goal at the World Cup was to get some experience and give Wallace a break,” Alan said. “I didn’t expect to play so well but I think the fact that I wasn’t super well-known outside of Brazil made the opponents focus more on our other hitters and that helped me to perform well.
“I didn’t expect to get the MVP award, but I think I deserved it and hopefully it helps me to get closer to a spot in the Olympic roster. But there’s still an entire season until there and I know that whatever happens during this season will have a massive weight on the final selection.”
Cachopa, too, seems to be in a good spot right now.
The 23-year-old, 6-foot setter has team captain and international star Bruno Rezende standing on his way to a starting role, but all the indications are that with his steady game he surpassed 40-year-old veteran Willian Arjona, who started ahead of him for several seasons at Brazilian club Sada Cruzeiro, in Renan’s pecking order.
“A few months ago I didn’t expect to have the opportunities and the experiences I had,” Cachopa said. “I dream about going to the Olympics since I first started playing, but there’s still a lot to happen until there. It’s been a season of learning and I tried to take full advantage of it.”
Flavio is probably the one with the toughest task in hand. Not only all three middle-blockers who won gold in Rio three years ago (Lucas Saatkamp, Mauricio Souza and Eder Carbonera) are still active with the national team, but also Isac Vianna, who’s been with the team for years, is another contender for the presumably three position’s spots in the Olympic roster.
The 26-year-old attacker, though, seems to be winning the uphill battle he got himself into as after arguably starting the season as the fifth option in the position he became Renan’s third most-used middle-blocker during the World Cup, in which he played in eight of the team’s 11 matches (while Isac featured in only four) and scored the championship-clinching point in a win over hosts Japan.
“It’s a battle,” he said about the competition for a spot in the roster. “I’m the shortest among the middle-blockers, so I feel like I have to give all I have every day. It keeps me on my toes and I feel like I’m being able to show what I can do and help in different ways. And to me, it’s great to see that I can compete with these guys because they’re certainly among the best in the world. The Olympics are certainly part of my plans. I felt that they were a distant dream but I think they got a lot closer this season.”
The development of new players in Brazil is accelerated by the fact that the country has one of the strongest men’s leagues in the planet, the Superliga. From a young age, athletes are inserted into a highly-competitive level and that was the case for all three, as Cachopa has won four national tiles with Sada Cruzeiro, having Alan as his teammate in two of them before the opposite moved to SESI, and Flavio has spent his entire career with the nation’s all-time winningest club, Minas Tênis Clube, until he signed with SESC Rio de Janeiro for the upcoming season.
“We’re all used to play under pressure,” Alan said. “Our national league is very strong and we have to deal with it at the club level too. So I think that when we get a chance to play for the National Team, that’s not a problem and anytime we get in the court we are just naturally aggressive.”
The three newcomers also share that they found their ways into the national team after having successful careers at the youth and junior levels. While Flavio has been wearing a yellow shirt since his teenage years, Cachopa and Alan were both part of Brazil’s U-23 roster that won the 2013 World Championships.
When they had their first chance with the senior team, they were handed an important task they needed to fulfill at the same time they were fighting for their spots in the roster.
“We say that the group that joined the team this year brings a new energy to the training sessions,” Flavio explained. “Some of the older guys have been doing it for several years and sometimes they may not be super motivated every single day, so we try to make sure we keep the intensity always as high as possible. I think that this mix of our energy and their experience had been working out pretty well for us.”
Brazil won all 11 of its World Cup matches.
“I think that regardless of who’s ultimately selected, Brazil will have a very strong roster at the Olympics,” Cachopa said. “Some of the younger players really took advantage of the opportunities they had this season and the team got even stronger.”
Guilherme Torres covers Brazilian volleyball for VolleyballMag.com