Since January 10 we have counted down the 12 best players per gender in 2021, looking back at some of the highlights of the year including the FIVB Volleyball Nations League and the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Today we present the number one player in the men’s ranking, French setter Antoine Brizard and his unlikely path to stardom.

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When the 2021 season began, the odds that Antoine Brizard would become one of the top protagonists of the main event of the year didn’t seem high. The 27-year-old setter was part of the French national team, but with captain Benjamin Toniutti ahead of him in the rotation, his impact on the team’s performance was expected to be limited.

Step by step, however, Brizard earned his place on the team and ended up starring in the biggest moments of the year to help France win gold at the Tokyo Olympics and bronze at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League.

In both tournaments, things played out the same way. Head coach Laurent Tillie started the French campaign with Toniutti in the lineup, but brought Brizard in for the final matches as his solid play proved valuable to the team.

In the VNL, the turning point came during the semifinal matchup against Brazil. Brizard came off the bench during the second set and, despite not being able to avoid a straight-set defeat to the eventual champions, then went on to play every minute of the bronze medal match when France overcame Slovenia to take their place on the podium.

In Tokyo, Brizard entered the quarterfinal matchup against Poland in the first set and helped the French come out on top in the five-set duel. He was the starter in both the semifinal match against Argentina and the five-set final against Russia.

“I always saw myself in the shadow of Toniutti in the national team and sometimes I asked myself what I should do to change that,” he said. “I completely understood my role in the team and we always had great respect for each other, but it was frustrating. Now we’re Olympic champions and it’s all worth it. This is a victory that will give all of us a lot of confidence for the rest of our careers.”

Brizard’s emergence has given France a considerable advantage over their opponents for the years ahead. No other team in the world has a pair of setters to compare with the one Brizard has formed with Toniutti.

Other successes for Brizard in 2021 included silver medals in the Russian League, the Russian Cup and the CEV Cup with Zenit St. Petersburg. He subsequently moved to Italy, where he currently plays for Gas Sales Bluenergy Piacenza.