Amid the sun, sand and sexy bodies on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, a Brazilian named Octavio de Moraes invented footvolley.
The sport — beach volleyball without using your hands but employing your feet, thighs, chest, shoulders and head to get the ball over the net — will be a demonstration sport in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, which begin Aug. 5.
Three South Floridians — Melony Poviones of Miami Lakes on the women’s team, and Sergio Menezes of Miami Beach and Lucas Roque of Deerfield Beach for the men — will represent Team USA at the Olympics. The other member of the four-person Team USA footvolley delegation is California’s Leah Morales, who will partner with Poviones.
Over the years, some demonstration sports have gained worldwide popularity to become an official part of subsequent Olympic Games. Among them: canoeing (introduced in Paris in 1924, became official at 1936 Berlin Games); badminton (introduced in Munich in 1972, became official at Barcelona Games in 1992); and Taekwondo (introduced in Seoul in 1988, became official at the 2000 Sydney Games). Menezes, a 41-year-old native of Brazil who was raised in Virginia, is sure footvolley will make major gains once it gets Olympic exposure.
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“I have no doubt it will be included in future Olympics,” said Menezes, a 5-10, 175-pounder who played one year of college soccer at Virginia Tech. “We think the Olympics will provide the impetus for this to become a legit, global sport.”
Poviones would love for that to happen. But for now, she’s thrilled to be going to Rio. A former soccer standout at St. Thomas University and American Heritage School in Plantation, Poviones earned enough points at a national qualifying round last month in Oregon to make the team.
“When I found out I was headed to Rio, I was filled with an immense amount of happiness,” said Poviones, a 24-year-old native of Miami who is of Cuban descent. “I’m so blessed to have this amazing opportunity.”
Poviones said her “eyes got watery” when she found out Menezes, who doubles as her coach, qualified for the USA men’s team later that day.
Menezes teamed up with Roque, a fellow native of Brazil, to qualify. Roque, 28, played high school soccer at Monarch High in Coconut Creek and professional indoor soccer with the Baltimore Blast. He started playing footvolley 12 years ago on Fort Lauderdale Beach. On Sundays, he used to travel to South Beach to play against Menezes.
Now the two are 2-0 as teammates, winning a regional and the national qualifier in Oregon.
“Sergio does a lot for footvolley to grow,” Roque said. “He’s probably the best promoter we have for our sport.”
Poviones, who is a personal trainer and youth soccer coach in Sunrise, suffered a serious knee injury in October, and is still dealing with the aftermath of anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Poviones, who suffered the injury while playing soccer. “But I knew it was something I could overcome. I still feel pain, but I’m not going to let that stop me.”
Poviones, a 5-2, 125-pounder, had an impressive soccer career. She was a two-time state champ at American Heritage and became an NAIA All-American at St. Thomas in 2013, ranking second in the nation that year with 28 goals and 10 assists.
She played one year of professional soccer — with the Houston Aces of the Women’s Professional Soccer League — before a friend introduced her to footvolley.
HISTORY OF FOOTVOLLEY
The sport was born of the Brazilian spirit of dar um jeitinho, a Portuguese expression which means “find a way.”
In 1965, after Brazilian soccer clubs banned their professional players from playing futbol in the summer — the goal was to prevent injury and keep them fresh for the start of the fall season — Moraes got creative. He and his friends went to Copacabana Beach and started kicking a soccer ball over the volleyball nets. Technically, they couldn’t be accused of violating the ban. But they could still sharpen their soccer skills and … voila … a new sport was invented.
The sport was originally played with five players on each side and was called pevoley, which is Portuguese for footvolley. The sport is now played with two players on each side and is called futevolei in Brazil and footvolley in the U.S.
Some of Brazil’s biggest soccer stars — Romario, Ronaldo and others — have promoted the sport; there will be 24 men’s teams and eight women’s pairings competing at Rio.
To serve, players kick the ball and are allowed to build a little sandhill behind the baseline to help elevate the ball. According to international rules, the net is set at 7 feet, 2 inches for the men and 6 feet, 6 inches for the women.
It’s not unusual to see a player soar in the air, body inverted and striking the ball with a foot at net level, a maneuver called a “shark attack.”
SPREADING TO MIAMI
About 16 years ago, Menezes and some of his Brazilian friends would struggle to find enough players to get up a decent soccer game on the beaches of South Florida. One day, they were playing on South Beach.
“We were playing soccer with this big, massive, tattooed, MMA fighter-looking guy,” Menezes said. “But since we didn’t have enough guys for a good game, he asked us if we wanted to play footvolley. We tried, but we stunk.”
Menezes said the big guy insulted them, telling them they weren’t real Brazilians because of their lack of prowess at footvolley. Since Tattoo Man was too big to fight, Menezes decided the proper thing to do was learn to play footvolley.
Soon after, Menezes and his friends began practicing every day. “We became the cool kids,” Menezes said. “Everyone who stopped by, tourists or people on skates, were drawn to us.”
By 2003, Menezes organized the first international footvolley event, held on Miami Beach. In 2008, he founded the Pro Footvolley Tour, holding its first event on Hollywood Beach.
Menezes, who is the president of the PFT, said the league has more than 50 teams and major sponsorship from Bud Light. There are also TV deals with 14 regional networks. In addition, the sport has also spread to Europe and Asia, as well as to Paraguay, South Africa, Aruba, Australia, Iran, Israel and United Arab Emirates.
Menezes said his organization is helping Colombia, Haiti and Trinidad open their footvolley federations.
Then he pushed and prodded Brazilian Olympic officials to get footvolley in as a 2016 demonstration sport.
“It’s a beautiful sport,” Menezes said. “We just had to bang on some doors.”
Roque, meanwhile, said it may take three more Olympic cycles before footvolley is an official sport.
“By then, we’ll have a lot more people around the world playing the sport,” Roque said. “Footvolley has already grown a lot. … I played soccer my whole career. But if you gave me a choice between the two, I’d rather play footvolley.”