San Juan, Argentina, June 3, 2018 - Facundo Conte sparked mass celebrations as he led host nation Argentina to their first Volleyball Nations League victory with a dramatic straight sets upset triumph over Italy 3-0 (25-19, 33-31, 25-20).
Conte could not contain his pride as he was engulfed by teammates at Estadio Aldo Cantoni after Argentina showed style in ending a frustrating run of five consecutive defeats to begin the competition.
Twelve total points made Conte his team’s joint top scorer along with Tomas Lopez, but this was a match that was all about emotion and commitment and showcased the fierce desire of the home team.
The Argentinean effort was a true team performance and the joyous scenes at the end were a testament to the squad’s never-say-die mentality. When Lisandro Zanotti’s spike secured the final point, the Argentina bench rushed the court in delight, veteran head coach Julio Velasco danced with his assistants, and blue and white confetti showered down from the rafters.
Italian stars Ivan Zaytsev and Osmany Juantorena contributed 14 and 13 points respectively on offense, but after snatching an extraordinary and tense second set Argentina had all the answers, leaving Italy to reflect on a disappointing return of just one win from the San Juan series of matches.
Energy and enthusiasm were the hallmarks of the Argentina team at the start of the game, with a clear determination to finally end the frustrating losing streak that had put them near the foot of the VNL table and give their home fans something to get excited about at the end of a tough week.
Conte, for so long his country’s talisman, was on song from the start, ably assisted by Lopez, who instantly found a rich seam of form. The defense was on cue to blunt Zaytsev’s scoring chances, with Lopez clinching a comfortable opening set win.
The second was a classic. Italy looked good while opening up a 17-11 lead, but Zanotti turned the momentum with a stunning block on Zaytsev and Martin Ramos saved set point with his first point of the night.
Italy were siding out effectively but hurt their own cause with three straight fault serves as the score crept up to 29-29, neither team willing to fold. When Daniele Mazzone struck an ace and then had Argentina in trouble again off serve it looked like Italy could level at 1-1, but an incredible diving save from Conte kept the hosts afloat, and then more solid defense teed up Zanotti for the set-winning kill.
There were thrilling moments throughout. Matias Sanchez produced one of the highlights with a spectacular dive along the floor and into his own bench, while Dasani’s celebration at the end of the second saw him leap into the arms of Conte.
More work was still needed, but by now Argentina were rolling at full steam. Sebastian Sole’s beautiful tip over the net opened up a 14-9 gap, but Italy chipped away at the lead as a few nerves crept in. The margin got as close as 20-21, but a Juantorena fault and another telling contribution from the little-used Ramos, this time with a critical block, put Argentina on the brink.
With Conte urging his colleagues for calm Zanotti rattled off the final two winners, leading to tears, hugs and a stirring outburst of excitement from the jubilant San Juan crowd.
Italy heads to Japan next week, to take on that country, Poland and Bulgaria, stung by having slipped down to seventh in the standings after an undefeated first week.
Argentina will be in France, for a group that also includes Serbia and South Korea. The South Americans are down in 14th place, but the morale boost from this dramatic night will give them hope of a strong resurgence.