August 7, 2021 will forever remain a key date in the history of French volleyball after Laurent Tillie’s men defeated ROC to claim gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Year in Review: Tokyo Olympics culminate in French Cancan
Published 08:00, 08 Jan 2022
It was a long and winding road that led France to victory in the Japanese capital. They bounced back from defeats against the United States and Argentina early in the tournament to claim a first victory against ROC in the pool phase. They then qualified for the quarterfinals despite losing in five sets to reigning champions Brazil. That match, however, marked a turning point. It led to an unstoppable streak of knockout round victories against double reigning world champions Poland, Argentina and again ROC in the final. And that streak ended in the team dancing to the sounds of the French Cancan at the Ariake Arena.
The final was in many ways a replica of the team's run of highs and lows in the tournament. It saw Earvin Ngapeth, Jenia Grebennikov and Antoine Brizard lead their teammates in fine fashion to claim the first two sets. In a reversal of fortunes, however, Thomas Sammelvuo’s men won the next two sets, with Pavel Pankov, Yaroslav Podleshykh and Victor Poletaev all helping to raise their team’s play to level the score. And the fifth set was a very close affair. Four consecutive points gave France the lead at 7-6 and a mini-break following an ace by Jean Patry at 13-11 were the sign of things to come. France had turned things around again, wrapping it up at 3-2 (25-23, 25-17, 21-25, 21-25, 15-12).
Scenes of joy followed. It was a glorious end to coach Laurent Tillie's time with the team, after leading the Blues to victories at the 2015 and 2017 editions of the FIVB Volleyball World League and medalling twice at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League (silver in 2018, bronze in 2021).
“It’s a beautiful fairy tale," said Tillie. "I hope that the players remember our first training session in July 2012 when we told them that they should dream of Olympic glory, and that to dream of that success it was necessary to have it in their minds every single day. Every effort counted in the end. We had to be patient, we had to have talented players, but today they were not just talented players, they were an incredible team. After three matches, we were not doing so well, but we just needed to persevere, to be resilient, to believe in ourselves. It’s miraculous, it’s magnificent, I don’t know what to add."
France setter Benjamin Toniutti said the team dynamics had been key. “It’s magnificent, the power of a team, we have built something since Berlin (the qualification tournament in January 2020). We showed it again during this competition. In Berlin we were almost eliminated, we have to be clear about that. And here too: when we lost against Argentina, we were not in a good place. And then something changed in the dynamics of the team, we had a new energy, were playing more freely. The final was also magnificent, even if it was a difficult experience. We were very clear-headed during the tie-breaker. When you are 6-3 down at the Olympics, it is really difficult to come back, but we did it. The win belongs to the whole team, including the team staff. For all of us, it was a dream to win an Olympic medal, to win the gold is exceptional. It was a special summer, we sacrificed a lot, we have spent eleven weeks in a bubble, but to return home as Olympic champions is amazing, it is something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, all together.
For tournament MVP Earvin Ngapeth, a tournament of ups and downs ended with dreams being fulfilled. "The final resembled our participation in the tournament as a whole," he said. We went through the full spectrum of emotions. There was a lot of pressure, but at the end we overcame that - it was an Olympic final, we could not accept to lose it 3-2. We are very happy! We have been together for a long time, we have worked together and dreamt of this. In Rio, we had not been successful. But we started working again, even harder, we have only had 10 days off since the beginning of preparation, but we do not regret anything, because it’s great when you get this kind of result. We dreamt of this, we did it together, with this group, and that makes it even more special."
And for star opposite Jean Patry, France were rewarded for their sacrifices. “It was a match that resembled us, which resembled the way we participated in this competition. There were times when we were not playing well, but we never gave up," he said. "It was the same during the tie-breaker, when we started badly and went 3-0 and 6-3 down, which wasn’t the best way to tackle it. But we didn’t give up, we believed we could still make our mark. We came up with some fantastic things and turned things around. Russia had done well in the third and fourth sets based on the quality of their defence and their work at the block, but during the fifth set we changed that. This title is the result of a lot of work, players investing time, making sacrifices, but also follows on from so many good moments. It’s a fantastic reward for those efforts. We have won the most prestigious title in international volleyball, it’s incredible. It was our ultimate goal, it has been a long summer, but we want to celebrate this together.”