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Laurent Tillie looks back at the crazy week of French volleyball

Laurent Tillie and his players start Ngapeth after the match ball against Germany. – John MACDOUGALL /

Three days after the Berlin exploit, Laurent Tillie still has small eyes, even if he has energy left for a last pair of interviews before a deserved rest in his house in Cagnes-sur-Mer. The coach of the Blues, in office since 2012, has lived almost everything with the France team. The medals, the crazy overthrows in the World League, then the (brief) status of new terror of world volleyball. But the great guy of tricolor volleyball (four Olympic qualifiers as a player then coach) does not need to force himself to recognize that the ticket snatched for Tokyo during an Olympic qualification tournament of crazy density represents one of the most beautiful pages in the history of tricolor volleyball.

Are you still on the cloud or already focused on Olympic preparation?

I assure you, I have absolutely nothing in mind. I'm going to look at the calendar and start a countdown. But for now, we're blowing. I leave the players alone, first because I think they’re sick of me, and I’m sick of them. They need to breathe. The next collective time will be at the beginning of May, and until then I don't get involved in anything. What I said to my captain Ngapeth and two or three elders is that I will come to them so that we can co-build a program for the Olympic Games, according to the needs of the players and our obligations. Remember that my captain Benjamin Toniutti has already played with his club in Poland. We finished on the 10th, and they had a league game on the 12th. Well, he was on the match sheet but he didn't come home.

Is that the daily life of a French international?

You cannot imagine the amount of stress they are undergoing. When I have been beating executive players for four years to tell them that they must train, that they must play all competitions and all games with the same determination when they just want rest … Training, in volleyball is a lot in played form, a lot of friendlies, training sets played hard. It’s serving maximum speed, working the intervals, working the relationship between the passer and the attacker, between the receiver and the passer, they never stop. Everything was directed towards this Tokyo objective. If you had seen the heads of the Serbs and Slovenes who will not go to the Games when they were in the final of the Euro in Bercy (beating France, 4th, editor's note). Taking part in the Olympic Games is stronger than anything. It’s the reward of all these battles for nothing, or rather to be ready on D-Day.

Is that why you were seen crying after the victory over Germany?

We have been thinking about this prequalification tournament for a long time. It was our last chance to qualify. And there have been so many glitches accumulated, between the packages, the personal worries, that we thought we would go with the force of despair. And then we had to hear all these criticisms after the Euro because we wanted the medal and we pass for idiots because we don't have it. It’s magic what we managed to do, I’ve never had so many returns. Between Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, I had to receive more than 200 congratulatory messages. It has nothing to do with what we have known before. When I took the selection in 2012, I scheduled the first training session of my mandate on the opening day of the London Games. We were qualified for nothing at all, but I wanted to show them the course by this symbol. Symbols are important.

What do you say to your two-set pointers for Slovenia in the semi-finals?

On this match, I'm just trying to reassure them, show them that it's going to be possible, or at least make them believe. Okay, they are playing well but if we want to hang on, we just have to try to give our backs and say "We are going to try to hold on because they cannot hold this quality of service. If they do, we shake hands and go back. However, if they go down, you have to be there. " And that’s courage, taking hits, taking money. The old ones held up, and that combined with the entry of the new ones like Patry or Brizard who were able to give a boost. Then the team managed itself.

That is to say ?

I often make the analogy with rafting. When it moves in all directions, you just give an oar stroke here and there so as not to capsize. It's the same. When you're in a state of tension, arm wrestling, it's in small touches. And when the team takes over, you should definitely not intervene.

You don't even talk to them anymore?

No, almost not. I don't take time-outs, I ask very little, just a little adjustment here and there. They took over the boat. We come back to all these matches, all this training, all this experience, to arrive at this self-management on important moments without my being able to pollute their game.

It’s an accomplishment for a technician when it’s going on its own, right?

Yes, it is a huge collective success to see that all the subliminal messages that we could send during the preparation, during the tournament, during all these years, worked. Brizard and Patry, for example, it is the advent of patience and training. These two young people, they have been there since 2017. They played matches, they went upstairs with incredible performance levels, then they went down very low, we had to allow time and keep them ready for the great occasion . In Berlin, the group was very strong in sharing. Sharing of skills, sharing of places, sharing of responsibilities.

The team had passed through in Rio in 2016 when it arrived in full flock. Have you learned from this failure?

The failure of Rio is a whole bunch of things. Even if they were well alerted and they were incredible in attitude, there is a physical dimension to the Games that you have to live to realize. We qualified very late, in June in Japan, then we returned to France, we left a week later in Australia for the World League, then back to Europe again. Then a week of rest and direction Brazil. This time of sacralization that we did not have four years ago is very important. It was a tournament like any other.

What is the objective? A medal ?

It’s very complicated to advertise anything. We always have the ambition to get on the podium but on 12 teams, there are ten who can win or almost. There will be Russia, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Poland… But we have the experience of 2016. When we go to the Olympics once in a while, like us, we have no Olympic tradition . There, the players who were in Rio, they will be able to supervise the new ones and know what it is like the Games. We may be better prepared. Because the first one, we are so moved, shocked, disturbed, by all the aura that there is around, we lose our means a little.

Beyond your team, what does it mean to go to the Olympics for French volleyball?

We fight on all levels. We are fighting to recover young people who prefer to go to rugby, football, basketball, or handball, rather than volleyball. We need exhibitions to recover these young people, to find partners, to attract spectators, to talk about us. We are always in this search for exposure without perverting. For us, the Games are a big door. Everyone is interested in this team and it will last until the Olympics. In view of Paris 2024, it was very important to be part of this continuity of Olympic life.