You’ve come a long way, baby! Oh, that’s Philippine women’s volleyball—not the liberated woman referred to in a brand of slim cigarettes—and it’s having a lovely time with the staging here of the FIVB Women’s Club Championship.
Don’t look now, but the local sport is having a delightful renaissance without its biggest draw, Alyssa Valdez.
Local volleyball’s happy time recalls the days in the early 2000s, when the country hosted a couple of World Grand Prix women’s tournaments. Remember Leila Barros, the Brazilian national team bombshell and the events’ main attraction?
For sure the tournaments lured capacity crowds of star-struck Pinoy fans to Smart Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, but these showcased top players from Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands, among others. No Philippine women’s team joined the fray.
This time, though, the Philippines—or at least half of the PH Superliga-F2 Logistics Manila squad (the other half being foreign reinforcements)—is front and center of volleyball’s latest “Big Event,” playing in the main evening match of the tournament’s inaugural day no less.
For the past several days until Sunday, Rachel Anne Daquis, Kim Fajardo, Mika Reyes, Jaja Santiago, Jovelyn Gonzaga, Jen Reyes and Ces Molina get to play against the giants of the sport at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay.
In their very first game against 11-time Brazilian league champion Rexona SESC Rio, all seven Filipinos managed to get on the scoresheet of the home team.
Fajardo, the former La Salle Lady Spikers setter, scored the opening point by smashing a weak Brazilian overhead shot. The fans went wild from then on.
If only for that point, the “It Girls” of Philippine volleyball have truly arrived.
The tournament features many of the finest and prettiest stars in the sport. Among its top attractions is Mariana Costa of Volero Zurich, who has wowed the crowds with her ferocious spiking and good looks. Like Barros before her, the 30-year-old wing spiker is the tournament’s crowd darling.
The 5-foot-11 Costa, an accomplished beach volleyball player and longtime mainstay of Brazil’s multititled national team, raised her profile—and the eyebrows of world volleyball officials—a few years ago when she posed for Playboy magazine.
Thaisa Daher Pallesi, the Brazilian reinforcement of Turkish squad Eczacibasi Vitra Istanbul, is also a certified stunner. The middle blocker is an Olympic gold medalist in 2012 and won Most Valuable Player honors when Brazil ruled the World Grand Prix in 2013.
Eczacibasi’s team captain Neslihan Demir is also a head-turner. The 33-year-old opposite spiker from Turkey is one of volleyball’s most recognizable faces and known in the sport as the “Iron Lady.”
A leader on the court, the 6-foot-1 Demir carried her country’s flag during the 2012 Olympics. She is married to Turkish actor Kamil Guler.
Vakifbank Istanbul’s Naz Aydemir has that angelic face that belies her beastly game. The 6-foot setter is an Olympian for Turkey.
In just the tournament’s first play date last Tuesday, Vakifbank shocked-and-awed Filipino fans by posting 27 blocks in a game—a record in the FIVB World Championship—with reinforcement Zhu Ting, also an Olympic champion for China, accounting for nine. She finished with 28 points.
That was highest number of blocks by a player in the prestigious tournament until Ana Carolina Da Silva of Rexona SESC Rio topped it with 10 a few hours later.
Women’s volleyball can thank the Internet for its popularity among mainstream sports fans. It turned out that Filipino volleyball fans, much like their football peers, are heavy on social media. It is said that many local players, such as Valdez and Reyes, command tens of thousands of followers. Oh, by the way, Valdez could not be picked for the PH Superliga-F2 Logistics Manila squad because she doesn’t play in the league. She sees action in the Superliga’s rival organization, Shakey’s V-League.
Each spike, each dig, each block, each excellent set at the World Club Championship is being beamed live on television and many highlight action are posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook under the hashtag #FIVBWomensCWC.
“You can’t help but notice the huge gap between these clubs and ours in terms of skills,” says Manel Sy-Ycasas, the many-time Southeast Asian Games taekwondo champion and volleyball fan. “But there’s no denying the Filipinos’ brave stand out there. When Jaja, Mika, Kim and Jovelyn are all inside the court, you will notice that the PSL-F2 plays even better.”
Ycasas is referring to the Filipinos’ fine form in the third set against Rexona SESC Rio game where they even led the Brazilians, 14-7.
She adds that playing against the top players from around the world boosts the confidence of the Filipino volleybelles.
“We still have a long way to go because these players are way, way ahead of us,” Ycasas says. “But if you understand volleyball, you will know that we are slowly getting there.”
The FIVB Worlds is only the latest international exposure for the Philippines in the sport. Just last month, a local squad, Foton-Pilipinas, competed in the Asian Club Championship in Biñan, Laguna.
With this kind of engagement, Philippine women’s volleyball will have firmer legs to stand on.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.