The French volleyball team finally wins its ticket for the Tokyo Olympic Games

French volleyball players celebrate their victory in the final of the Olympic qualification tournament against Germany, which enabled them to win their ticket to the Tokyo Games.
French volleyball players celebrate their victory in the final of the Olympic qualification tournament against Germany, which enabled them to win their ticket to the Tokyo Games. JOHN MACDOUGALL / grouvysport.com

Tokyo. The Japanese capital, the scene of the next Summer Olympics, alone concentrated all the hopes of the French volleyball team. But as time went by, the pitfalls on the Chemin des Bleus seemed more and more insurmountable.

After a first failed Olympic Qualification Tournament (TQO) in Poland in August 2019, then a Euro, organized at home in September, ended in a disappointing fourth place – two competitions synonymous with missed tickets for Tokyo – the noose tightened by more and more.

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Last chance to qualify: a fast-paced TQO – five games in six days in Berlin. After defeating Serbia, reigning European champion, then getting rid of Slovenia, European vice-champion, in the semi-finals, the Blues came out on Friday, January 10, the perfect match against the Germany, folded in three sets (25-20, 25-20, 25-23).

In a room fully won over to the Mannschaft cause, whistling the blue star Earvin Ngapeth, the French have wiped out German dreams and, finally, cherished theirs. " To succeed in qualifying is simply incredible … it is a bit of our medal ", savored Laurent Tillie, the French coach, after collapsing in tears for long minutes at the end of the match.

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The end of the ordeal

The coach's tears speak volumes for the way of the cross traveled by his men: two tickets to the Games gone up in smoke, after the failure of the TQO in Poland, and "their" Euro lost at home, a month more later. The test of a new tournament against five European cadors seemed the obstacle too many. "It was horrible, I never want to relive it again", sighed half-relieved, half-nervous the libero Jenia Grebennikov after the final.

This TQO was all the more complicated since several pillars of the group were not on the trip: the injury packages of receptionists Thibault Rossard (left foot), Trévor Clévenot (back), Julien Lyneel's little glitches on the back, and above all the absence of the sharp Stéphen Boyer, revelation of Euro 2019, for " personal reasons ", made a dark omen hover over this French team. " We wanted so much to go to Tokyo, but it seemed impossible with all the little problems we had ", blew Laurent Tillie.

If France is one of the major volleyball nations, it has long won nothing. European champion and winner of the World League in 2015, she had to settle for a 9e place in Rio in 2016, after elimination in the first round.

Same scenario at Euro 2017, only 7e of the 2018 Worlds, history seemed to repeat itself for the French, even with an Earvin Ngapeth in its ranks. The latter, recently entangled in legal escapades – he spent a night in prison for an inappropriate and sexist gesture in a nightclub in Brazil, in 2019 – also seemed unable to save a sinking French team.

On Friday the 10th, however, Ngapeth remembered his own talent: he scored the point of victory on direct service. Like the symbol of his redemption and that of the awakening of his team.

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"We are stunned, I don't realize yet", said Jean Patry, the 23-year-old "sharp" of the French team after the victory, incredulously. If there is one player to whom the Blues owe their rescue, it is him. Called at the last minute in place of Stéphen Boyer, he was the best French scorer during this tournament.

Friday, he scored 14 points, alternating direct service and attacks placed. Against Serbia, he had increased the counter to 22 points. "Jean was incredible, he showed that he had the shoulders: it was great to play with him", appreciated Jenia Grebennikov.

The main stakeholder was still struggling to return from his performance. "I knew I could do it, but I had a lot of questions. I think you can say that I did well ", he confided laughing.

Like the Patry phenomenon, a new generation, heir to the "Team Yavbou" (the nickname the team has given itself), has distinguished itself. Barthélémy Chinenyeze, Antoine Brizard and Yacine Louati will follow in the Olympic epic.

Since the introduction of the discipline to the Games in 1964, France has participated in only four Olympiads (1988, 1992, 2004, 2016). Once only, she had achieved the feat – given the difficulty of the TQOs – of participating in two consecutive editions. The French have just ended this series, since they will chain Tokyo this summer, and Paris 2024, the host country being qualified as an office.

From July 24 in Japan, the Blues will try to do better than in 2016. "We found the resources this time, we can do it again in Tokyo", says, confident, Jean Patry. "It’s still far away, but a medal would be a dream", fantasy, meanwhile, Jenia Grebennikov.

If coach and players struggled to contain their emotions on Friday January 10, the Olympic medal is already in everyone's mind. It would be the most beautiful thing that could happen to this long suffering French team, but which can now breathe. Finally.