Brazil has been holding its own during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. They’ve won 16 medals so far: in surfing, skateboarding, judo and swimming.
But the country has also been throwing its weight around in volleyball. Both Brazil’s men’s and women’s teams are competing for medals this weekend. Brazil may not be top-of-mind as a volleyball powerhouse. But since the 1980s, the men’s and women’s teams have been making waves on the court.
This weekend, the men’s team will play Argentina for the bronze. The women will face off against the United States for the gold on Sunday, in what’s expected to be a tight match.
The US has the top-ranked volleyball team in the world, including in International Volleyball Federation standings, but they have yet to bring home an Olympic gold medal. The Brazilian women are internationally ranked as number two, just after the US.
In Brazil, huge crowds pack stadiums for volleyball games with vibrant chants similar to a Brazilian soccer match.
“Same passion,” said Elisa Dell’Antonio, a professor of physical education at Santa Catarina State University and a longtime volleyball coach.
“Volleyball is really important in Brazil. ... We are considered the soccer country — but volleyball is number two.”
“Volleyball is really important in Brazil,” she said. “We are considered the soccer country — but volleyball is number two.”
But for Dell’Antonio, and millions around the country, volleyball is actually number one. Volleyball plays on TV in many Brazilian homes and some even plan their weeks according to the games.
Volleyball is also the top sport practiced by women in Brazil, according to a 2015 report by the country’s now-defunct Ministry of Sport. Even for men, it’s the second most important sport — after soccer, of course.
Dell’Antonio grew up playing and joined a team with her town’s volleyball association when she was in high school. She practiced every day after school — five days a week.
“It was my life. It was my passion,” she said. “I wanted to get to practice early. I wanted to stay late.”
Today, she said, her cousin and a former teammate are on the women’s Olympic team.
“I can’t help but root for them even more than usual,” she said. “I’m expecting to be fined by my apartment complex for shouting too much the other night.”
Brazilians celebrated online.
Sports historian Carolina Fernandes da Silva said volleyball first came to Brazil about 100 years ago.
But, she said, in the 1960s and ’70s there were big changes. They launched the country’s professional volleyball league. “That’s when it really became a prominent sport,” she said.
Things took off in the ’80s, when Brazil won its first Olympic medal for volleyball at the Los Angeles games. The men’s team lost to the US in the finals, but won the silver. They were named “The Silver Generation.”
Eight years later, Brazil’s men went on to win the gold at the Barcelona Olympics. They never looked back.
Since 1992, Brazil’s men’s and women’s volleyball teams have won nine Olympic medals, and numerous World Cup and international championships.
But there are concerns about the future.
Amid declining investment in sports, President Jair Bolsonaro abolished the Ministry of Sport on his first day in office in 2019, as part of his massive government overhaul.
Sports historian Fernandes da Silva said signs of impact from that decision are apparent. This is the first Olympics in two decades that the men’s volleyball team won’t play in the finals.
It’s also the first Olympics since the inclusion of beach volleyball in 1996, when none of the Brazilian teams won a medal.
“If you want Brazil to do well at the Olympics, you need investment and public policies, and they are in decline right now."
“If you want Brazil to do well at the Olympics, you need investment and public policies, and they are in decline right now,” da Silva said.
Regardless of what may come, Brazil’s national volleyball teams are battling for their medals. And Brazilians are rooting for the national colors — yellow and green.