Three weeks before the women’s South American qualifier in Argentina, Volleyverse reporter Sidronio Henrique talked with two of the main Argentinian weapons, middle blocker Mimi Sosa and libero Tatiana Rizzo. Together, after a Brazilian Superliga match, they shared their thoughts on expectations, dealing with pressure, team development, and the presence of family and fans to support them in early January.
Argentinian volleyball has gained respect throughout the years since the 1980s thanks to their men’s achievements. Maybe it is time for their girls to step up and get a place in the spotlight. After three-and-a-half years of preparation, “Las Panteras” (The Panthers), as the fans call them, will face their toughest moment from January 6-10 when they will battle for a berth in Rio Olympics in a qualifier held in Bariloche, a famous touristic destination in the foothill of the Argentinian Andes. If they succeed, it will be the first time Argentina participates in the women’s volleyball competition at the Olympics.
While the men’s team is gaining ground on the elite teams, the Argentinian girls are still a mid-level team, not a threat to powerhouses such as Brazil, USA, China or Russia, but good enough to put up a fight with squads like Germany, Netherlands or Dominican Republic.
In the last round of the 2015 World Cup, they almost beat eventual silver medalists Serbia, giving them a run for their money in an intense five-setter. However, before that, “Las Panteras” didn’t offer too much resistance to the top teams, although they beat the rivals at their level, Cuba and Peru. Still too many ups and downs.
Volleyverse: What are your expectations for playing such an important competition in front of your crowd?
Rizzo: Playing at home, in front of our fans, brings some extra motivation. It is going to be beautiful, not only because of the crowd but our family will be there, it is something special. Apart from the home advantage, our group is preparing well, although we are not together yet. We are committed to the purpose of qualifying to Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Some of the girls are in Argentina, we two here in Brazil, some in Europe, but we hope to reach our best game in Bariloche.
Sosa: Playing at home also means extra pressure. As Tatiana said, it will be great not only for the crowd but for seeing our family watching us, which is fantastic. Our group has athletes playing around the world in many pro leagues, but we all keep in mind this qualifier, so we could take Argentina women’s volleyball for the first time to the Olympics.
Volleyverse: What has being a player in the Brazilian Superliga added to your game in terms of technique and experience?
Sosa: Superliga gives us rhythm, the level is really high, one of the best leagues in the world, so we both are always training intensely. We play twice a week, which is very demanding, comes up as something very positive and reflects in our way to play here or for our national team.
Volleyverse: Five teams, one Olympic berth. Four of those teams – Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela – are real contenders for the spot in Rio 2016. Which one is the toughest opponent to “Las Panteras”?
Rizzo: I think each one of them is very tough, there is a lot of balance, every squad has some great players and we know they are preparing well for this tournament. We must stay focused on our game, be able to execute what was planned, and keep our concentration. I would say every match in Bariloche is going to be like a final for us.
Sosa: We must be alert, we cannot take anything for granted, no one will make it easy for us. I predict a very tough competition for this Olympic berth.
Volleyverse: Do you believe your national team has finally reached their best level since you have joined them?
Rizzo: The team has done a good job throughout this Olympic cycle. After twelve years we managed to qualify again to the World Championship (Italy 2014), we achieved some important results, some really good wins during the last three seasons, had some good tournaments such as 2015 Pan Ams and 2015 World Cup. I believe we are on the right track, improving, as we work very hard for that.
Volleyverse: That match against Serbia at the 2015 World Cup (the silver medalist Serbian squad won 3-2), especially third and fourth sets, was perhaps Argentina’s best moment this season or even in recent years. However, the team played below expectation against other strong teams like USA and China, for example, offering little resistance. What does it take to sustain that level we saw in third and fourth set versus the Serbs? Is it such a big challenge?
Rizzo: I believe so. We still struggle to keep our level in high standards for long periods. We must reduce the number of mistakes we make.
Sosa: We have always tried to raise our level against the elite teams, tried to take advantage of these clashes to grow, to learn a little more. I wasn’t playing that day because I was injured, but I was there among the backups, saw the way the girls executed the game, and was such a thrilling match. I admit it is hard for us to sustain that level all the time and we hope to reach it when we play our constant rivals. You know, those teams that are at the same level of ours.
Volleyverse: What are the main strengths and weaknesses of “Las Panteras”?
Rizzo: Our main strength is we have been playing together for such a long time, the whole group. Myself, I have been around for ten years or so, Mimi has been with us for six years. We know each other very well, everybody. When one of the girls seems down or her performance drops, we know what to do to cheer her up, to raise her game again, what to say to make things better. Another important aspect is that many of us play abroad in strong leagues and we bring this experience to the team and share it with the other players. Among our weaknesses, I would point out that sometimes anxiety takes over control of our group, especially during decisive matches.
Sosa: We all are very close and it makes a difference in the toughest moments. I hope we can overcome our weaknesses and make it to the Olympics.
Emilce “Mimi” Sosa
Position: Middle blocker
Birthdate: September 11th, 1987
Hometown: Formosa, Argentina
Whoever looks at Emilce Sosa without knowing her would never guess she is a volleyball middle blocker, and a pretty good one. At the 2015 World Cup this shorty but skilled Argentinian finished seventh in the blocking statistics ranking, leaving behind much taller girls. Standing at a mere 1.77m, Mimi, as she is known, is a phenomenon. Not only a standout in blocking, but also a good choice for the setters in attack at crucial moments. It is always like this in her national team or in Rio do Sul, her club in southern Brazil, where she has been playing since last year. Mimi Sosa proves you don’t have to be tall to be great.
Birthdate: December 30th, 1986
Hometown: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Effectiveness could be the main tag for Tatiana Rizzo, the libero of the Argentinian national team, who makes her debut at the Brazilian Superliga this season, also in Rio do Sul. A source from the club says she broke all expectations and the coaching staff is more than happy to have her. Funny thing, Rizzo the libero is one centimeter taller than Sosa the middle blocker. Who would have thought? Tatiana Rizzo used to be a left side in Boca Juniors, her former club in Argentina.
The South American qualifier
Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Chile will be at the South American qualifier in Bariloche, January 6-10. Except for the Chileans, all the other teams have a legitimate chance to grab the ticket to Rio 2016. The competition, in round robin format, will be fierce.
Recently Peru and Colombia defeated Argentina at the continental championship, but a B team represented “Las Panteras” in that tournament, where they finished fourth after being runner-up in the last three editions (2009, 2011 and 2013) . With the main squad, it has been years since the Argentinians lost a match to their regional rivals, standing behind only powerhouse Brazil. Although the favourites in Bariloche, the locals know they are about to face a hard task. Team Argentina arrives in the city on December 28th.
The Peruvians rely mostly on young talents, the main one being the opposite and left side Angela Leyva, a promising 19-year-old spiker that has a star status among Peruvian press and fans. Rumour has it veteran Spaniard setter Patricia Aranda, a naturalized Peruvian, could join the team, giving them more stability. Setter Zoila La Rosa, former starter, had a quarrel with coach Mauro Marasciulo and got cut before the continental championship in late September. At the qualifier for the World Cup and later in this tournament, “Las Panteras” defeated Peru only in the fifth set. Guillermo Orduna, Argentina’s coach, has already stressed the Peruvians are their main rival.
The Colombians are getting closer and this time they will count with Madelaynne Montano, an impressive veteran hitter, playing this season for Polish club Chemik Police, who reaches 3.30m in attack, driving blockers and diggers crazy. Before heading to Argentina, Team Colombia has scheduled some friendlies against Dominican Republic – the Caribbeans prepare for Norceca qualifier, in January 7-9, in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
Venezuela brought back seven veterans from the team that played in Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. Without many of those and assembling the squad just three days before the beginning of the South American championship, they almost beat Peru, losing 2-3. They want to make things different this time and arrived earlier this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina, being the first squad to get together for the tournament, training hard and playing some friendlies against local clubs, heading to Bariloche on January 3rd.
Wednesday, January 6
Colombia vs. Venezuela
Argentina vs. Chile
Thursday, January 7
Chile vs. Peru
Argentina vs. Venezuela
Friday, January 8
Venezuela vs. Chile
Peru vs. Colombia
Saturday, January 9
Peru vs. Venezuela
Argentina vs. Colombia
Sunday, January 10
Colombia vs. Chile
Argentina vs. Peru