A few nights ago in Rio, I saw a great beach volleyball game. No, Kerri Walsh-Jennings didn’t play. I had come to the arena on Copacabana Beach to see her and April Ross win–again–for Team USA, but I arrived early. Without anything planned before their match, I wandered into a men’s group stage match of Austria v. Qatar.
The match was more raucous than I had expected. The Qataris garnered much more applause from the Brazilian crowd than would normally be expected for a nation halfway around the world. While neutral fans tend to root for the underdog, these cheers seemed to signal more than just another Cinderella story. After some googling, I learned that Jefferson Pereira Santos, one of the Qatari players, was born just miles from the arena on Copacabana Beach. This man from Qatar had a heavy home court advantage.
At 5 feet 10 inches, Pereira Santos was shorter than other Brazilian volleyball players. Before the 2012 Games in London, he was competing for a spot on Brazil’s team against some of the best–and tallest–players in the world. He didn’t make the team.
Pereira Santos thought his volleyball dreams were over. But then Qatar reached out. Beach volleyball is new to the country. In 2013, however, Qatar hosted its first FIVB-sanctioned event, which was so successful that the country tried to grow the sport’s popularity at home. To promote beach volleyball, they lured several foreign players, including Pereira Santos, away from their home countries to help build Qatar’s national team.
The Brazilian fans caught on to Pereira Santos’ heritage when his sister was interviewed in the stands before the final set. Once word spread, raucous chants filled the arena between every set and spike. The Brazilian crowd reacted to each kill and dig with an energy usually reserved for soccer matches. Between the hometown frenzy and the celebratory dances of Santos’s energetic partner, Cherif Yonousse, the excitement inside the 8,000-person volleyball arena mounted with every point. English and Portuguese emcees pumped up the crowd, blasting Nelly’s “Here Comes the Boom” and MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” after each spike or block. Each time the referee had to beg the crowd for silence, though his pleas went unheeded.
Qatar won the match in a tie-breaking set. And what started as a half-empty stadium watching without any real expectations turned into an Olympic spectacle–one that would have been ignored without Pereira.
While the record-breaking spectacles of Simone Biles and Michael Phelps have received much attention in the international press, the less viewed matches are by no means less exciting. The rowdy Brazilian-Qatari crossover created one of the most enjoyable surprises of the Games. This match may have flown under the radar, but the Pereira-Yonousse combo gave me an evening I will never forget.