There are still five remaining berths for the volleyball Olympic tournament on both men’s and women’s side, and lots of squads are preparing to battle for a ticket to Rio 2016, but one foreign team with a secured spot will arrive three months before the Games in Brazil, Cameroon women’s squad.
The Lionesses, as their volleyball players are known, will stay there training and eventually playing before moving to Rio for the beginning of women’s competition, on August 6.
The group of eighteen players arrives in São Paulo on early May and goes to Jaguariuna, a small town in the countryside. Head coach Jean-Rene Akono travelled first and is in Brazil with David Ojong, a director of the Cameroonian Olympic Committee, which is paying for the long period of training focusing on Rio Olympics. The rest of the staff will come with the athletes from Africa in two weeks. The roster has to be reduced to twelve players before the Olympics.
Akono knows a medal or simply advancing to the quarterfinals sounds like an impossible dream, but he intends to use the long training period in Brazil and the experience of competing at the Olympics as a stepping-stone to reach a higher level in the upcoming years. Two Brazilian coaches joined the project and will be working with them until they travel to Rio in early August, Paulo Pan and Paulo de Tarso Milagres – the first worked with the volleyball development of another African country, Rwanda, while Milagres coaches Pinheiros, one of the most traditional clubs in Brazil.
Coach Jean-Rene Akono pointed out the team’s main characteristics and their motivation:
[quote cite=’Jean-Rene Akono’]Our athleticism is our main strength, our players are physically strong, while the technical part needs some improvements. We already won our medal by qualifying to the Olympics, now we want to confirm ourselves as the best African team, and the Olympic Games will be important to give us more experience and confidence.[/quote]
Why arriving so early in Brazil and taking such a long training period abroad? Akono tells us the reason:
[quote cite=’Jean-Rene Akono’]If you want to improve, you need to learn from the best, and Brazil has top volleyball players and professionals, they are twice Olympic champions, these aspects were essential in our decision.[/quote]
About playing in the Olympics:
[quote cite=’Jean-Rene Akono’]It will be a lifetime experience for them, it is a dream for most athletes. I believe that playing at Maracanazinho, in front of a passionate audience such as the Brazilian fans will be a huge pleasure, something unique, unforgettable.[/quote]
Paulo Pan, one of the Brazilian coaches engaged on the project, emphasized their potential:
[quote cite=’Paulo Pan’]They have a huge physical potential. If we are able to inject some Brazilian rhythm, adding more ball control and adapting them to a faster game, they could be very competitive in the future.[/quote]
Getting Close To Fans
The technical staff plans an approach to the local community with open practices, believing this could be positive for the players, since they will be away from home for a long time. Jaguariuna is a quiet town with a 50,000 population, 125 kilometers away from the hush of São Paulo.
Their fans in Cameroon will not be forgotten, as the team thinks about using social networks to keep in touch, bringing the latest information on their development.
Besides eventual friendlies with Brazilian clubs, Akono hopes to schedule some preparation matches with Dominican Republic, Argentina and even powerful Brazil.
First Olympic Appearance
The Lionesses booked their first ticket ever to the Olympic Games last February, after beating Egypt 3-2 in a thrilling five-setter, in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, in the final of the African Olympic qualifier. On that day, 5,400 fans packed Palais des Sports and some of them joined the athletes on the court in a party with drums after the game. Seven squads battled for one ticket, including favourite Kenya, the best-ranked African, who finished third.
This is the fifth time an African women’s team participates at the women’s volleyball tournament in the Olympics. Kenya qualified for Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Algeria took part in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. The African men’s squads have played since Munich 1972.
Professionals, Students and Workers
There is no professional league in Cameroon and their national team is a mix of six pros with a group of students or workers that practice volleyball part-time. All the professionals play in the French league, three of them in the same club, Chamalieres, including their main weapon, opposite Tchoudjang Nana, usually the Lionesses’ top scorer. Captain on her club and on the national team, Nana plays for Chamalieres since 2010 and already signed with them for next season.
The Cameroonian girls should not offer much resistance to their opponents in August at Maracanazinho Arena, in Rio de Janeiro. Same way their men’s team, who did not qualify, they are known for their cheerful celebration after rallies and their constant joy, aspects that caught the attention of the media during the 2014 Women’s World Championship, in Italy. Back then, the Lionesses played five games, winning just one set against Canada, losing in straight sets to Brazil, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey.
Seven teams have secured their place in Rio: Brazil (host country), USA, China, Russia, Serbia, Argentina and Cameroon. The five remaining spots will be decided in two qualifiers in May.
With thanks to contributor Carol Canossa