Benelli said seeing 11,000 fans cheering for Italy at Palalottomatica was a very emotional moment for her
Verona, Italy, October 4, 2014 - Manuela Benelli is a volleyball icon in Italy and was the first female player to make the headlines in the country that is currently hosting the FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship. But before she sat in the stands at this tournament, she had not realised how much the sport had changed since she stopped playing.
“It is a matter of rules,” the Italian player said during her visit at PalaOlimpia on Saturday. “But also the way the game is being taught to our youngsters has changed a lot.”
Benelli, played for the national team from 1981 to 1994 collecting 325 caps, a record that was broken by Manuela Leggeri in 2007 and Eleonora Lo Bianco later.
She added: “There is less attention to technique; this is definitely something that is not a priority as it used to be in the past. Other than that, volleyball has become much more popular than 20 years ago and I see a major difference also in the exposure it gets.”
Popularity means packed stands and Benelli has been surprised with the turnouts in Italy.
“I was really impressed last Saturday when I went to Rome and saw 11,000 people supporting our national team. I have been to Bari as well and I can say that the fans have become our seventh player.
“They provide our team with an incredible boost of energy,” said the setter, who was the leader of Italy’s national team at the time it achieved its international breakthrough in the late 80s.
Benelli admits technical skills and striking looks have played an important role in attracting new fans and media. “I would say that the likes of Maurizia Cacciatori, Eleonora Lo Bianco, Valentina Arrighetti and Francesca Piccinini deserve much credit for this breakthrough. They were able to draw in also those who wouldn’t normally follow our sport with their media exposure and personality, both on and off the court.”
However, there is an opportunity to make it better: “There is definitely something we have to improve and this is the exposure that volleyball enjoys on TV and newspapers.
“I understand that this task is not an easy one, but we shall work hard to make sure we make the front page of our sports newspapers and you do not have to start flipping through from the last page in order to quickly find some articles reporting on volleyball.”
The same applies to TV exposure and Benelli said: “We have to find a way to broadcast volleyball on public TV channels and find time slots where the fans can easily tune in and follow their favourite players. I am confident that many people have fallen in love with volleyball after following matches of this World Championship.
“We should exploit this wave of enthusiasm to attract many more fans and get the exposure that our sport and our players deserve.”
Though there is still room for improvement, volleyball has already gone a long way since Benelli’s days when she was the undisputed cover girl of the sport in Italy.
“I remember playing a semi-final of the 1991 European Championship in Rome and even though our qualification for the 1992 Olympics was at stake, and that would have been the first time Italy made the Olympic tournament, you could easily count the spectators sitting on the stands.”
No wonder the experience at this World Championship has been a sensational one for her.
She continued: “Seeing 11,000 fans cheering Italy on at the Palalottomatica last Saturday was a very emotional moment for me. I could not even recognise the arena being the same where I had played 23 years ago. This means we have gone a long way and the future of volleyball looks as bright as ever.”