LONDON (Reuters) - Russia proved the oldest sporting adage that it’s never over until the scoreboard says so as their men’s volleyball team came back from the brink to snatch Olympic gold and spoil Brazil’s party at the London Games on Sunday.
By the time Russia’s Dmitriy Muserskiy hung high above the net to spike the Russians to a 3-2 victory, they had undergone an astonishing rollercoaster ride that had seen them come back from two sets down and save two match points.
For a country that is considered among the powerhouses of the sport, Sunday’s victory also ended a painful 32-year streak without a men’s Olympic title that had included two losing finals.
For Brazil it was their second consecutive silver that will dampen celebrations on the day the Olympic baton is officially passed to Rio da Janeiro.
It was the first time a team had come from two sets down in the gold medal match to clinch the Olympic title and the emotions spilled over at the end as the Russians piled on top of each other before their coach Vladimir Alekno was hoisted triumphantly into the air.
“It’s hard for me to speak. Emotions are overwhelming me,” Russia’s Sergey Tetyukhin told reporters.
“It was a hard match. I think that those people that did not believe in us, they turned their back and went away after the second set, but those who trusted, they are the most valuable. I think we have shown our character.”
Brazil were ranked number one in the world and were everybody’s favorites heading into the encounter having beaten Russia 3-0 in the group phase.
With the closing ceremony just hours away, there was a sense of destiny hanging over the final, especially after Brazil’s women’s team had clinched gold just 24 hours earlier.
Sprawling queues of fans decked out in green and yellow snaked around the streets from Earls Court station, many holding placards begging for spare tickets to catch a glimpse of their team who started so well.
As the mercury soared outside and the atmosphere inside simmered, the Russians were caught colder than a Siberian winter, with Brazil storming to the first set 25-19.
From the moment Murilo Endres leapt athletically to put away the first point of the match, every Russian server was booed and their every mistake cheered to Earls Court’s peeling-paint rafters.
The Russian frontline are towering giants of men, led by Muserskiy who stands at 2.18 meters (7-foot-2) and sleeps in a special bed in the Olympic village to accommodate his hulking frame.
In the early stages, however, the Russian attack seemed like agricultural threshing machines in comparison to the more nimble Brazilians who worked the ball around the court with speed and precision.
When Brazil took the second set, a carnival atmosphere had already begun to ripple around the stands. Russia looked forlorn and even their high-fives between points looked labored in comparison to their opponents.
The title was within touching distance for Brazil as they engineered two match points in the third set, but Russia saved them both, reduced the deficit to 2-1 and set the ball rolling on a remarkable change in fortunes.
Muserskiy, who finished top scorer with 31 points, was firing winners at will as Brazil’s heads dropped and all the coherence and structure that had propelled them to a two-set lead seeped away.
After leveling the match at 2-2, Russia romped away with the final set to win 19-25 20-25 29-27 25-22 15-9.
In the post-match analysis, both teams cited a tactical switch in changing Muserskiy from the centre to left of the attacking trio as key to Russia’s victory.
“I am just ecstatic,” Muserskiy told reporters.
”The team put their trust in me and it was last chance saloon. We did not have a choice but just to go for it and the gamble paid off.
“The team felt that I was confident and I wasn’t going to go down without a fight and that’s when they started directing everything towards me.”
Many of the Brazil squad were inconsolable at the end with Bruno Rezende, the son of coach Bernardo Rezende, sobbing uncontrollably as he prepared to mount the podium to collect his silver medal.
“Now we have to learn to live with these consequences. We had the chance, but we had to show up and take the chances,” he said.
”The game doesn’t have an explanation now we just have to talk (between ourselves).
“With all the problems that we’ve overcome, it’s OK (winning silver), but we’re obviously disappointed.”
Earlier in the day Italy had beaten Bulgaria 3-1 to win the bronze, their fourth volleyball medal in the last five Games.
Captain Cristian Savani top scored for Italy with 23 points in a 25-19 23-25 25-22 25-21 victory.
“Not everyone is able to win an Olympic medal. We have been really good at pulling our teeth from the beginning to the end,” Savani told reporters.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury