When Ronald Sarti left his job in Argentina to take over as the head coach of the Venezuelan men’s national team in 2017, he knew exactly what he was walking into. As a former player, he had the perfect measure of the challenges and obstacles he would face while trying to lead his country back into the elite of the sport.
And yet he embraced the task ahead of him.
Almost four years into Sarti’s tenure, it’s fair to say he has succeeded. The South Americans might not be right up there with the elite of the sport yet, but they have made undeniable progress over the last years, most notably with their second-ever qualification for the Olympics.
The Venezuelans are set to return to the greatest stage of international sport in a few months at the Tokyo Games, repeating what they first achieved at Beijing 2008 with arguably the country’s strongest-ever generation, which included the likes of setter Rodman Valera, opposite Ernando ‘Harry’ Gomez, middle blocker Ivan Marquez and outside hitter Luis Diaz.
“Since the beginning of my coaching career, I’ve heard numerous times in clubs and even in the national team that I had made the wrong call in taking this job and that there was no way the project would be successful,” Sarti said. “The way I see it, I could either accept the situation or work to build something different. I believe the pessimistic don’t have a chance to succeed and I take every problem as a challenge and every challenge as motivation. And nothing makes me happier than succeeding in a challenge.”
Sarti, of course, didn’t turn things around by himself. When he returned to his home country, he found a group of players that had failed to produce results at the international level for almost a decade and who were still mourning the tragic loss of their captain, outside hitter Kervin Pinerua, who passed away at the age of 25 in 2016.
What Sarti found made it clear that he would need to promote a massive change in the programme, one that would not only encompass the technical and tactical sides of the team, but perhaps most importantly, its emotional condition.
He knew it would take a lot of work to accomplish and that a number of hurdles would stand in the way, but as long as he had the players by his side, there would always be a chance.
“The players had a massive role in it too,” he said. “If it had been just me, we’d never have succeeded. We had to deal with several frustrations along the way and they never lost faith in what we were doing. We always approached the hurdles in our path as opportunities and the only way to make it work was using them to improve. If we had allowed some of these situations to drag us down instead, then we wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
Venezuela competed in the FIVB Volleyball World League in Sarti’s first season at the helm, but since have not appeared in any other major international event. The team set a clear and audacious goal – qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics – and quietly went to work to accomplish it.
The first step was finishing in the top-four of the 2019 South American Championship, which they did. That result secured the Venezuelans’ presence at the South American Men’s Tokyo Volleyball Qualification tournament that would take place in Santiago, Chile, in January 2020 and put in play one berth to the Games.
Venezuela were the only team among the four contestants with Olympic experience, but that didn’t make things any easier for them. The tournament started well for Sarti’s team with a victory against hosts Chile, but a five-set loss to Colombia the next day severely jeopardised their hopes. On the final day, the Venezuelans did their part defeating Peru and joined the home crowd pushing the hosts against Colombia. And it worked.
“To play for our Olympic dream in just three days, it was crazy,” the coach said. “When we lost to Colombia, I went straight to my hotel room and started doing calculations to figure out which results we’d need on the last day in order to qualify. I told the players that the point we had earned in that match would put us in the Olympics. I knew Colombia would face a lot of pressure against Chile and we had survived that challenge before, but there was a chance they wouldn’t. And that’s how it happened.”
The long-awaited qualification has reflected positively on the team and the sport in the country. Last December, the ‘Vinotinto’ received the nation's Sports Writers Association best sports team award in 2020, while Sarti took home the Coach of the Year award.
There has, undeniably, been a fair amount of change in Venezuela over the last four years, but Sarti’s hopes are that their Olympic journey is actually just the beginning of a larger process.
“I’m certainly not going to say we’re going to win the Olympic Games, but I see it as a rebirth for Venezuelan volleyball,” he said. “We need to use this opportunity to find more support not only for the senior teams, but also for the youth and junior ones. Without a structure, it’s difficult to get results. Venezuelan volleyball has had important players and important moments in the past and they were all results of a structured process.”
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