Overthrown then stunning, the French volleyball players conquered Olympic gold, the first in their history, by beating the Russian favorites in a final with twists and turns, 3 to 2 (25-23, 25-17, 21-25, 21-25 , 15-12), Saturday in Tokyo.
In Japan, the Blues had started the tournament in the worst possible way with two defeats in three matches (United States, Argentina) which had put them on the verge of elimination.
The reaction took place in three stages: an unexpected victory over Russia, already, two sets taken in Brazil (2-3) in the game of survival, then the feat in the quarterfinals against the double world champions in Polish title (3-2).
"It was when we beat the Russians for the first time that we realized that our game had returned," said passer Antoine Brizard, excellent at distribution.
"But nobody had ever thought of being an Olympic champion. The watchword was not to talk about it!"
After a week, utopia turned into a goal.
Ngapeth came out of his torpor of the early days to instill the same madness as at the time of "Team Yavbou", when French volleyball had won its first titles, the World League in 2015 and especially the Euro a few months later. late.
The joy of French volleyball player Earvin Ngapeth, after a point scored against the Russians in the final, August 7, 2021 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games JUNG Yeon-je AFP
It was this spirit that blew on a crazy final.
Dominating for two sets thanks to breathtaking defenses around Jenia Grebennikov and the Ngapeth festival on the attack, the Blues seemed to be heading for a lightning victory when they led 2-0 and also took the lead in the third set (12-9).
- "With heart and guts" -
But this is the moment that the Russians chose to regain their power in service and attack, while the French were losing their bite at the net.
Caught 2 sets to 2, then led 3-0 in the start of the tie-break, the Blues then found admirable mental resources to reverse the match one last time.
"We had a change of direction. We had put so much energy in these last five or six matches! We had no more energy but we went to look for it with the guts and the heart", explained the attacking Trevor Clévenot.
Trevor Clévenot during the Olympic final won by France against Russia in Tokyo on August 7, 2021 Yuri Cortez AFP
After a final attack outside and a useless video challenge from the Russians, the Blues could then launch a frenzied French cancan, to the ovation of the many French accredited members gathered in the stands by the delegation to give a semblance of atmosphere to the event.
By widening the angle of view beyond Tokyo, this gold medal also appears as a divine surprise, because since the magical summer of six years ago the disappointments have multiplied: elimination in the first round in Rio , because of an unfortunate combination of circumstances, failures at the Mondial-2018 and again at the Euro-2019, where the Blues had finished at the foot of the podium in front of the public of Bercy.
- Tillie "can live quietly" -
Over the years, coach Laurent Tillie has been able to renew his troops.
Of the fourteen European champions of 2015, only four are still there in Tokyo: his son Kévin Tillie, Benjamin Toniutti, Jenia Grebennikov and Earvin Ngapeth, and only the last two are still holders.
Proof of a meritorious depth for a sport which had less than 150,000 licensees before the coronavirus crisis, or about a quarter of basketball or hand.
The coach of the French volleyball team, Laurent Tillie, carried in triumph by his players, after their victory in the final, 3 sets to 2 against the Russians, August 7, 2021 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games JUNG Yeon-je AFP
In a discipline where athletic power is decisive, he has managed to preserve the originality of the French game - the taste for cunning and feint, technical rigor, determination, personified by Grebennikov, to prevent the ball from falling - while raising it to international standards against and (almost) serving, the weak points of the past, thanks to players like young Jean Patry, magnificent throughout the tournament, and Barthélemy Chinenieze.
After such a success, it is obviously out of the question for the new champions, the oldest of whom is 31 years old, to lower the knee pads at three years of the Paris Games.
After his ideal exit, Laurent Tillie will now hand over to a volleyball legend, the Brazilian Bernardinho, double Olympic champion and triple world champion, who will aim for gold and only gold in 2024.
"He can live in peace now! He will no longer bother me! If he says something to me, I will tell him + I am Olympic champion +", his son Kévin said with a smile.
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