After switching federations from Cuba, Leal is living his Brazilian dream

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Yoandy Leal 2019
Brazil's Yoandy Leal Hidalgo (9) spikes the ball as Poland's Lukasz Kaczmarek blocks during a Volleyball Nations League Finals bronze-medal match in Chicago on July 14, 2019/FIVB photo
VolleyballMag.com tem o prazer de apresentar seu mais novo colaborador, Guilherme Torres, um brasileiro apaixonado por voleibol que vive nos Estados Unidos.
Guilherme, que trabalhou com a Confederação Brasileira de Voleibol, o Comitê Organizador dos Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016, a Federação Internacional de Voleibol (FIVB) e a Beach Major Series, irá trazer a cobertura completa do voleibol brasileiro para nós.

Sua primeira reportagem é essa entrevista exclusiva com o ponteiro da seleção brasileira Yoandy Leal, que juntou-se ao time recentemente após naturalizar-se de Cuba. O texto é em inglês, mas a entrevista em vídeo foi feita em português.

VolleyballMag.com is excited to introduce its newest contributor, Guilherme Torres, a Brazilian volleyball aficionado who lives in the U.S.
Torres, who has worked worked with the Brazilian Volleyball Federation, the Rio 2016 Olympic Organizing Committee, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and the Beach Major Series, is going to cover all things Brazilian volleyball for us.
His first story is this exclusive interview with Brazilian men’s national indoor team outside hitter Yoandy Leal, who recently switched federations from Cuba. The story is in English, but their video interview is in Portuguese.

Brazil ruined one of Yoandy Leal’s childhood dreams when the South Americans defeated Cuba to win the gold medal at the 2010 World Championships, but nearly a decade later, the 31-year-old outside hitter is on the verge of accomplishing another of his youth aspirations.

Nine years after playing his last match for the Cuban national team, Leal was finally cleared to represent Brazil and his first four months with the team have been nothing short of promising. 

More importantly, the reigning Olympic champions counted on the help of the Cuban-born spiker to secure their spots at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, which could be the first for the outside hitter, who failed to qualify Cuba for the 2008 Beijing Games before he left his native country.

“There’s still one year until the Olympics and I hope I can be called up, it would mean a lot to me,” Leal said. “It’s been great to play for Brazil. I really missed international competition. I grew a lot as a player at the club level, but to be able to challenge the best national teams on a regular basis, that’s just awesome.”

The Cuban is the first foreign player to represent Brazil and his inclusion in the national team didn’t come without criticism. 

Rio 2016 Olympic champion Lipe Fonteles and Beijing 2008 and London 2012 silver medalist Murilo Endres, who captained the team in the past, weren’t shy to voice their concerns to the media.

But Leal didn’t really just fall into the national team. After he left Cuba, shortly after the 2010 World Championships campaign, he went to Brazil and was part of arguably the winningest club the country has ever saw, claiming 25 titles, including three Club World Championships and five national Superligas with Sada Cruzeiro between 2012 and 2018. 

When he decided to go overseas, he joined Italian powerhouse Lube Civitanova, where he paired with Brazil’s national team setter and captain Bruno Rezende to win both the 2019 Italian title and the European Champions League.

So, it wasn’t like he was stepping into something completely new last May, when he met the team for the first time in an airport in Katowice, Poland, just 10 days after winning the Champions League.

“The fact that I had played with some of my teammates in the past and that I had played in Brazil certainly helped,” Leal said. “But the guys welcomed me in the best possible way and it’s been very easy to adapt. It’s a process, it feels better now than it did four months ago and I’m sure it will just keep getting better.”

With the 6-foot-7 Leal on the squad, Brazil’s head coach Renan Dal Zotto has the ability to set the team with two of the most powerful outside hitters in the international game in Leal and Ricardo Lucarelli. 

The formation has been constantly used since the Cuban’s arrival, but had struggles with passing on some occasions, which forced the coach to pair one of them with the more technically-skilled Mauricio Borges and Douglas Souza in specific situations.

“I think we can definitely play together,” Leal analyzed. “We have four of the best outside hitters in the world and any of us can play in any match, but Lucarelli and I have been playing well together. People keep talking about passing, but the truth is that in modern volleyball, with teams serving as aggressively as they are, you’ll only have a perfect pass to work with 20 or 30 percent of the game. Century 21 volleyball is a game of high balls and Lucarelli and I can definitely play it.”

That formation, indeed, was the one that took Cuba to the gold-medal match of the 2010 World Championships, when Leal paired with Wilfredo Leon on the Cuba team. The 26-year-old star is another of the Cuban talents who was forced out of the national team when they decided to play professionally overseas. Interestingly, their paths recently crossed.

It was in one of Leal’s first matches with Brazil, in August, when the South Americans defeated Leon’s Poland 3-1 on their way to win the Hubert Jerzy Wagner Memorial Tournament in Krakow.

“It felt like everyone was waiting for that match,” Leal said. “We had a lot of questions about playing each other getting into the match and I’m glad it went our way. But I’m really happy to see him doing well in such a strong team as Poland. He’s a great player and he deserves that. I’m sure we’ll still play each other quite a few times and I hope I can win most of them.”

Leal, Leon and Osmany Juantorena, who plays for Italy, are probably the most notorious cases of Cuban stars who had to switch federations due to the country’s prohibition of national team players moving overseas.

That policy, however, could be changing soon, as Cuba recently accepted the return of middle-blocker Robertlandy Simon, setter Raydel Hierrezuelo and opposite Michael Sanchez to the national team despite their playing in other leagues. If that movement continues, Cuba could regain their spot among volleyball elite in a few years.

“I think that’s great,” Leal observed. “Cuba needs its best players and right now all of them are overseas. Simon has already returned and he showed what an impact he can have and it’s going to get even better when Hierrezuelo and Sanchez get back too. 

“I hope they can help the young generation to qualify Cuba to the Olympics and improve its international ranking. The team is currently around the 25th place and I feel it belongs in the elite, where it was not long ago.”

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