By Joshua Schneyer
(Reuters) – In Brazil it is often said that volleyball is the country’s favorite sport, because soccer is a religion.
Brazil’s deep well of volleyballtalent and home court advantage make its women’s and men’s teams favorites to win gold at the Rio Games, where fervent fans should make the sport a big crowd-pleaser.
In the women’s competition, veteran Brazil coach Ze Roberto is looking to lead a powerful squad to a third straight Olympic gold, a feat only accomplished once before, by Cuba.
In April, Ze Roberto said Brazil were up to the task, but also sought to temper expectations. Brazil’s arch rivals, the top ranked United States team, were looking especially strong, he said.
A third straight Brazil-U.S. final at the Olympics would be fitting. The two previous losses have left Team USA hungry for a first taste of Olympic gold in Rio. China’s strong women’s team are also considered promising contenders.
In the men’s draw, a young and confident Brazil side will enter the Games top of the world rankings, and eager to avenge a stinging gold medal loss to Russia at London 2012, where they led by two sets and had two match points before capitulating.
Brazil will pin their hopes on players such as precision setter Bruno Rezende and outside hitter Ricardo Lucarelli, whose thunderous spikes make him a leading scorer.
Third-ranked Russia are also expected to be strong while other powerhouses in the men’s competition include the United States, who beat Brazil for gold at Beijing 2008, and five-times medal-winners Italy, who are still hunting for their first Olympic gold.
Poland, who are ranked second in the world, have not won an Olympic volleyball medal since 1976, but they dominated Brazil in the final of the 2014 world championship to underline their Games credentials.
The volleyball in Rio will be held at the Maracanazinho gymnasium, home to Brazil’s national team. Considered hallowed ground, the venue sits adjacent to Rio’s iconic Maracana soccer stadium.
Volleyball has graced the Games since 1964 (the beach volleyball competition began in 1996). Both varieties will draw festive fans in Rio, whose beaches are often studded with volleyball nets.
The indoor competition kicks off on Aug. 6 with group phase matches. The women’s and men’s finals are set for Aug. 20 and 21 respectively.
(Reporting by Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Toby Davis)