When the current decade began, Sergio ‘Serginho’ Santos was already one of the biggest names in Brazilian volleyball. The following ten-year period, however, would cement his name in history.
Raised in a poor community just outside the country’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, the 1.84m-tall player was one of the first to benefit from the creation of the libero position in 1998. The new role gave Serginho, no more than a hard-working outside hitter at the time, the opportunity to make the most of his outstanding backcourt skills.
And he went for it.
He was called up to the Brazilian national team in 2001 and rapidly became a mainstay for the squad in what was a decade of unmatched success. Led by legendary coach Bernardo Rezende, the team won two Olympic medals (gold in Athens 2004 and silver in Beijing 2008), two FIVB Volleyball World Championships (2002 and 2006), two FIVB Volleyball World Cups (2003, 2007) and seven FIVB Volleyball World League golds (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009) with Serginho playing a pivotal role in each of these triumphs.
After missing the 2010 season due to back surgery, Serginho returned to the team for what many thought would be a golden farewell at the London 2012 Olympics. And it certainly looked like it would be a successful return well into the Games’ gold medal match with Brazil winning the first two sets, but Russia’s historic comeback gave the libero’s farewell a sour taste.
Approaching his 40th birthday, Serginho stepped away from the national team in the years leading up to the Rio 2016 Olympics. But with his club performances as solid as ever, and the national team in need of influential leaders, Bernardinho picked up the phone and spoke to the veteran.
“When he called me, I didn’t have to think twice to say yes,” Serginho commented at the time of his return. “I always said that any time the national team needed me I’d be there to help. For the younger players to grow they need references and someone to push them. I got that from Mauricio (Lima), Giovane (Gavio) and Nalbert (Bittencourt) when I first joined the team, so now it was my turn to show the way.”
That phone call was probably the difference between Brazil winning their third Olympic gold medal one year later at the Maracanazinho and the hosts being knocked out of arguably the most important tournament ever for the country.
Without Serginho, who was outstanding in each of the team’s eight matches in that Olympic campaign, earning him the Most Valuable Player award of the tournament, things may have been very different for Brazil. And his great performances were only a part of it.
After back-to-back setbacks to the United States and Italy, Brazil were set to face France in what would be a win-or-go-home match for both teams at the conclusion of the pool stage. That’s when Serginho felt it was time for him to deliver a strong message to his teammates.
“I felt the team needed a push,” he said. “During a meeting, I asked if one of my teammates had ever visited someone in intensive care at a hospital. I told them I had because one of my sons had been in hospital and it was terrible. And that’s where I felt my volleyball career was at that moment, in intensive care.”
“I told them that if we lost that match, I wouldn’t have another chance and my volleyball career would be dead. And that I didn’t want it to die in that way and they were the only ones who could save me. I remember some guys were crying, others came to me and said they wouldn’t let it happen. And that completely changed the team spirit from that point on.”
And Brazil looked like another team after that, winning the next four matches with only two sets dropped on the road to gold. The image of Serginho announcing his retirement from the national team, this time for good, and leaving his No. 10 jersey on the floor of the Maracanazinho later became a symbol of that gold medal victory for the Brazilians.
Shortly after becoming the first man to play in four consecutive Olympic finals and one of three male volleyball players to secure four medals at the Games, the libero played a farewell match at a football stadium in front of 35,000 people who came to wave goodbye.
With his duties fulfilled with the national team, Serginho dedicated the last years of his club career to different experiences and having fun. He played for Corinthians, which was also the football team he grew up supporting, and spent the last season of his storied career leading a young Pacaembu Ribeirao team.
The Brazilian Superliga was cut short in 2019-2020 due to the pandemic, but his final match in March had an outcome typical of Serginho’s career, with Ribeirao securing an unlikely five-set road win against one of the tournament’s favourites in the team of Fiat Minas.
Then, at 44, it was time for the man many say was key to the development of the libero position to rest.
“I’ve been trying to find a way to leave the sport since the Rio Olympics, but people wouldn’t let me,” he said, joking, at the time. “Every season a new challenge presented itself, and I’ve always been a guy to take those up. Now I think it’s the right time and I can look back at my career and feel extremely happy about it. Every dig, every reception, every trip, every tournament, won or lost, they were all worth it.”
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