Benjamin Toniutti, who passed the 300-appearance mark for the French volleyball team in 2019, has been the national captain for seven years and is one of the best setters in the world. He has been taking the positives out of the postponement of the Tokyo Games, for which “Les Bleus” qualified in style, and is excited at the prospect of a new adventure with his team-mates in the summer of 2021.
The captain of the French volleyball team since 2013, setter Benjamin Toniutti has been an integral part of the renaissance of a squad that has won the World League twice (2015 and 2017), been crowned champions of Europe (2015) and qualified twice for the Olympic Games, starting with Rio 2016. “My first Olympic experience; that was a real highlight – the Opening Ceremony, our first match… Obviously we were then really disappointed with our final result, because we wanted to do better. We failed to reach the quarter-finals after losing a crunch game against Brazil, who went on to become Olympic champions,” he explains.
He highlights in particular his experience of a new, slightly destabilising pace of work, with matches every two days. “But I have great memories of the Rio Games, even though we finished ninth in the end. The Olympic Village was particularly incredible – coming across so many people in the same place, the enormous canteens, mixing with people from all different countries… That’s why they say competing in your first Games is so difficult. Even though we were really focused, it’s true that there was one thing that didn’t quite work: we didn’t really manage to ‘throw ourselves into it’ as we should have done.”
On their road to the Tokyo Games, France missed out on their first chance to qualify in August 2019 at the FIVB intercontinental tournament, after losing to Poland, whose victory saw them earn their own Olympic place. But the French went on to successfully navigate their way through a particularly tricky European qualification tournament in Berlin in January 2020. “We arrived not really knowing how we’d perform, with loads of injuries and absentees,” recalls Toniutti. “In fact, all the problems that could affect a squad in a team sport hit us at the same time, in the same tournament – the most important tournament.
“So, the head coach picked the most in-form players, and the qualification was achieved by everyone, the whole group, after a long, difficult tournament that had only one place at the Games up for grabs. We produced a comeback in the semi-final, when we were two sets down against Slovenia and ended up winning 3-2. Then there was the final against the host nation, Germany. They’d been waiting for this match for a long time, and we were sort of the underdogs. We beat them 3-0. Despite all our problems, we managed to win the qualification tournament.”
In permanent contact during lockdown
The team and their captain were riding high and ready to compete this summer in Japan – with the aim of doing far better than at Rio 2016 – when the global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to the one-year postponement of the Games. “It was hard to take at first,” says Toniutti. “We were mentally prepared to give the Games our all, and then everything fell through. But given the health conditions, it was clearly the right decision. We’re seeing that, even now, in June, the situation still isn’t particularly clear. Going to Tokyo and bringing so many people together wasn’t a good idea. We’re athletes, we live for this, and it would have been tough to experience Games behind closed doors for example. I prefer this one-year postponement and for the Games to take place in the best possible conditions. And this wasn’t the case for volleyball, but there were still loads of sports that hadn’t finished their qualification processes. So lots of things were unresolved, with huge question marks hanging over them.”
He added: “This will be a new adventure. Each of us will need to perform well individually and have good seasons at our respective clubs, and then we’ll get together next summer with the same goal. Our national team doesn’t have any players who are too old or coming to the end of their careers, for whom one year could make a big difference. We’re all in a good age bracket; it’s just one more year, and we need to look at this as a good thing.”
Toniutti began lockdown at his house in Poland, where he plays for his club side ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Koźle, before moving back to the family home in Sète, on the Mediterranean, with his wife and two daughters. He has been staying fit and keeping in touch virtually with his team-mates. “We’ve been talking a lot, wanting to know what the situation is in each country and at each club where everyone in the French squad plays, and we’ve been asking after Earvin Ngapeth every day, because he caught COVID-19 in Russia,” explains Toniutti. “We’ve been asking him loads of questions about how it all happened, what the symptoms were, and he explained it all to us. We’ve also been speaking regularly with our coach, Laurent Tillie, who was supposed to be stepping down this year but has decided to stay on until 2021. It makes sense: he was the one who led the team to qualification for two Games tournaments. It would have been odd for him not to be able to take us further.”
It is already known which 12 teams will be facing off at the Tokyo Games, and the draw for the first-round group stage has been made. “We want to go further than at Rio 2016, but we’re in a really, really difficult six-team group, with Argentina, Brazil, the USA, Russia and Tunisia. We’ve got a bit of time to think about it. But it will be important to arrive well prepared and in good form, and sure of what we’re going to do. We’re going to try and make a good start to the competition, because our first match in 2016, against Italy, really hurt us. We were in a bad way right from the off, and that initial defeat became a sort of millstone around our necks for the rest of the competition.”
“Of course I’m already thinking about Paris 2024”
France will get their tournament underway in Tokyo against the USA. “It’ll be massive, a huge game,” says Toniutti. “They finished third in Rio. They’re a team that always do well and know how to prepare for competitions. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll see. We’ll be raring to go, but the mindset is different: so many things will be happening between now and then, and I can’t say that my mind is on Tokyo at the moment; for now, it’s all about getting my fitness back up so I can have a good season. It would be a bad idea to just be thinking about Tokyo, because to deliver there, we all need to perform well over the next year, so we can head into the summer of 2021 in prime condition.”
He added: “This year, we qualified in January – much earlier than four years ago, when we qualified at the last minute after playing I don’t know how many matches. This time, we had a bit more time to process everything; six months to gear up mentally and physically. And now, instead of six months, we’ve got a year and a half, and we should be thinking about that even more so that we’ll be even better prepared. In this type of situation, you need to take the positives and go from there. This is a completely unprecedented situation; I hope we’ll never experience it again. It’s important to take the positives so we can get back on track. We’ll be the only athletes ever who’ve had five years to prepare for the Games.”
Toniutti is the setter and captain of a national team that had qualified for the Games only three times before 2016, with a best-placed finish of eighth at Seoul 1988, but which has since gone from strength to strength and had been in a fine recent run of form. “More than anything, my role is a team role,” he explains. “It involves being the link between the staff and the group. We’ve been playing and working together for a long time. For me, the most important thing isn’t being captain; it’s that the French national team has qualified for the Games twice in a row. Three times if you count our automatic qualification for Paris 2024. Of course I’m already thinking about the Paris Games. If an athlete says they wouldn’t like to compete in the Games in their own country, they don’t have the right mentality for the top level! Naturally, it’s the stuff dreams are made of for all of us. We’ll all be between the ages of 26 and 34/35. It’s definitely possible! But let’s focus on the Tokyo Games first; we’ll see what happens after that.