#TBT: How Leila Barros and the Volleyball Grand Prix in Manila started it all

Gerry Plaza on Jun 02, 2016 04:55 PM
#TBT: How Leila Barros and the Grand Prix started it all
Leila Barros (left) of Brazil and Francesca Piccinini of Italy were the stars of the FIVB World Women's Volleyball Grand Prix when it was held in Manila nearly two decades ago (Photo courtesy of the Grand Prix 2000 program).

It was one sight so overwhelming for six to ten-year-old girls to even fathom.

Images from the TV screen had lit up their living rooms leaving them with their mouths agape, and eyes tingling and wide with so much wonder. They marvel at the sight of the best women volleyball players around the world marching their way in the PhilSports Arena.

Slumped on their sofas, their eyes were glued on the hostilities, which was one of the biggest sporting events in the world hosted by the Philippines.  It was the FIVB World Women’s Volleyball Grand Prix, and surely no one would have dared to change the channel in the excitement filled living room.

Seeing the world’s best go to battle was just breathtaking as they marvel at each serve and rally, dig or block, and those thunderous spikes that brought the entire arena down.

Amid the excitement and hype, the Grand Prix drew immense local interest in women’s volleyball not only because of the level of play but primarily due to the captivating characters that graced the competition, most notably Italy’s Maurizia Cacciatori and Russia’s Lioubov Chachkova.

Leila Mania

However, the biggest attention grabber was one Brazilian beauty who not only captured hearts but also convinced and inspired those girls who witnessed her brand of play decide on playing a sport with utter passion. Leila Barros, the 5’8” outside hitter was just simply both a volleyball “phenom” and the mesmerizing telenovela star-like celebrity Filipinos loved.

In the 1999 Grand Prix prelims, Leila had the heart and skill to bring her compatriots to a double win in the tournament, with her versatility and intelligence on the court, with her gripping spikes that amazed spectators on hand to witness her play. Italy was the first who fell victim to Brazil’s apparent “home court advantage,” 25-22, 27-29, 25-23, 25-18 with “Will You Marry Me” signs greeting the Brazilian bombshell.  Their next, final game was no walk in the park, however, as Leila and her teammates survived a grueling five-set match against a determined South Korean squad, 25-27, 25-20, 25-20, 19-25, 15-7.

After Brazil advanced to the Grand Prix finals in China, it met a resolute Russian team that vanquished its hopes for a back-to-back title.

Cuba’s year

With the immense popularity women’s volleyball gained in the Philippines after the 1999 Grand Prix prelims notching the attendance record for any Grand Prix events at that time, the holding of the Grand Prix finals in the same PhilSports Arena in 2000 was downright spectacular.

More spectators trooped to the venue to watch the second holding of volleyball’s centerpiece event in Manila. Not only were Filipinos rooting for Brazil but for the other countries as well, proving how expansive and extensive it has become.

It was the year of Cuba, which already won the 1996 Olympics, 1998 World Championships and the 1999 World Cup. And, in the 2000 Grand Prix in Manila, it succeeded in annexing a Grand Slam with a four-set drubbing of Russia behind Regla MacKenzie Bell’s heroics, before a record 10,750 fans in the Pasig stadium, showing how the popularity of the sport reached its peak.

Inspired

And so did the memory of this heralded international volleyball tournament remained in the hearts and minds of those awestruck kids, now leading the current wave of spectacular volleyball frenzy in the country.

In fact, one particular volleyball star, Charo Soriano the playing coach of BaliPure Purest Water Defenders in the Shakey’s V-League and a co-founder of Beach Volleyball Republic stated that Leila had inspired her to play the game. From watching Leila in her grade school days, Charo went on to become one of the most prolific players in the Ateneo Lady Eagles roster.

And so did the entire nation, with even people from far-flung areas vividly remembering their favorite and most beloved female volleyball player as one “Leila Barros,” which continue to stretch their growing love and passion for the sport as collegiate and commercial leagues have since grown to epic proportions. And its stars too, with names like Alyssa Valdez, Gretchen Ho, Rachel Ann Daquis, Denden Lazaro, Amy Ahomiro, Cha Cruz, Michele Gumabao, Melissa Gohing, Aby Marano, and Ara Galang, having reached celebrity status.

Indeed, Leila Mania that came from those scintillating August days at the turn of the century was a portent of things to come.

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