With thoughts already beginning to turn to the forthcoming Olympic Games of 2016 in Rio, with many hoping for a spectacular celebration at the biggest sporting event in the world, which sports are the Brazilians getting most excited about in the build up to the event? With the athletics in the Olympic stadium often being the focus for the world's press, you might think that the likely last opportunity to watch Usain Bolt hurtle down the track in the men's sprints would be the highlight. Failing that, with the South Americans often being professed to be football mad, then surely the locals will be flocking to cheer on Barcelona's Neymar and his compatriots in the Maracana. Perhaps rather surprisingly, Brazilian sports fans instead seem to be more interested in the volleyball!
It has not always been that way, hence the reason for many outside of the country maybe not linking the country's interest to a sport that typically does not command the back, never mind the front pages, of the world's newspapers. Yet, since the early 1980s, or more precisely 1982, when the men defeated the then Olympic champions USSR in the Mundialito (the Spanish meaning is "little World Cup"), its popularity has risen dramatically in the country. Prior to then, the sport was viewed as being for women only, and not 'macho' enough for typical Brazilians (ie. men) to take much of an interest in. That historic victory was televised in Brazil and clearly made a big impact on society in the country as a result, maybe mirroring to some extent the success of other 'fringe' sports after they have received TV coverage at Olympic Games.
As an indication of how quickly the sport took off, you have only to consider that a rapidly arranged friendly between the men's team and USSR in the following year, was able to attract a volleyball record crowd of almost 96,000 to the Maracana - still the record attendance for a match in the sport.
Brazil were able to build on the initial success, with the men taking an unexpected silver in LA in 1984. Winning at any sport is always popular with fans, and with the men ranking number one in the world currently and the women bidding for their third successive Olympic title, it is easy to understand why the sport would be popular. Although football is, and always will be, spiritually associated with the Brazilians, in their view it is volleyball that is their number one sport.
Volleyball's popularity is matched by its participation levels, with around 15 million regularly playing the sport and television broadcasting up to three games nationwide per week. It also attracts the sponsors, with the Brazilian Volleyball Confederation being backed by Banco do Brasil, one of the biggest banks in the country. With around £15.8 million being pumped into the grassroots of the sport every year, it is not hard to understand why they are so successful. Top Superliga teams typically require around £3.4 million a year to operate successfully, but with the financial assistance of such as Nestle and Unilever (the 'Rexona' brand, also known as 'Sure' to the UK, is linked to the sport), the money is made available.
The leading Brazilian volleyball players (both men and women) are major stars in the country and among the highest paid sportspeople there. Sheilla Castro and Jaqueline Carvalho are major news in the country, both having celebrity marriages in the mode of the Beckhams in the UK.
As for the Olympics and those 'gold dust' tickets to watch the action. Well, as one might expect there is plenty of demand in Brazil for them. The first ticket ballot saw some 200,000 people from the country apply in the first two weeks, with 27% choosing volleyball for their choice of tickets, ahead of football on 21.9%. Swimming was not far behind neither, but the introduction of golf into the Olympics seems to have attracted very little interest from the locals.
Brazil expects their teams to deliver in volleyball in 2016, but will they come up to their expectations? #Celebrities