The Brazilian coach is determined to guide Iran to the Paris 2024 Games – read the Volleyball World exclusive interview

Finding a good mix between young players and veterans is part of Paes’ strategy for the VNL 2024 (Photo: Iranian Volleyball Federation)

The solution to complex situations often comes from simple measures and that idea will be one of the mantras of newly-appointed Iran men’s national team head coach Mauricio Paes as he attempts to qualify the Asians for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Announced by the Iranian Volleyball Federation at the end of February as the substitute for the departing Behrouz Ataei, who left his post last year, the 60-year-old Paes, who’s currently completing the club season with Epicentr-Podolyany in Ukraine, is set to begin the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

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With immense coaching experience in France, where he led the country’s women’s national team between 2013 and 2014, was an assistant in the men’s team in 2021 and won eight national titles in less than a decade, Paes is starting his first experience as the head coach of a men’s national team. He has, however, a lot of miles working as an assistant under some of the best in the business, such as his Brazilian compatriot Bernardo ‘Bernardinho’ Rezende and French legend Philippe Blain.

Ahead of Iran, Paes has a big challenge as he attempts to take the Asian nation to Paris 2024 for a third-straight Olympic appearance. The odds are not on their side right now, as the Asians are currently in 15th place in the FIVB World Rankings and have seven other national teams that are still vying for an Olympic spot ahead of them.

In order to be among the national teams qualified for Paris, the Iranians will need to pass at least four of them and they only have their 12 Volleyball Nations League 2024 Preliminary Round matches to earn the points they need to do it.

The clock is ticking on Iran and just over a month before the start of their preparations for what are expected to be intense two months, we got some insight from Paes in regard to his plans in an exclusive Volleyball World interview.

Volleyball World: You’re set to have your first experience coaching a men’s national team with Iran. What motivated you to take this challenge? Do you believe your previous coaching experiences have prepared you for it?

Paes: I always felt that taking over as the head coach of an elite volleyball nation was the next logical step in my career. The challenge of qualifying for the Olympics is part of our job while coaching at this level and I see it as an amazing opportunity and a privilege to take part in his journey. My past experiences in France, Japan and Brazil and the many challenges I faced under Bernardo’s leadership made me who I am as a coach and helped shape me as a professional. I believe that all these international experiences will contribute to my choices and decisions.

VW: Your main mission with Iran is qualifying the team for the Olympics and get them to their third-straight Olympic appearance. The scenario is not very promising now, so what makes you believe that this goal can be achieved?

Paes: The current ranking situation definitely doesn’t help us and it’s going to be a tough road, filled with daily battles and small victories, but I know the potential of Iranian volleyball. This a country that is the reigning U21 world champion and took silver in the U19 age group. That shows that the potential is there and that if we can combine the players who have been performing at a high level in the top European leagues with the most experienced ones, we can build a very strong squad. That’s why I believe we can do it. The main challenge will be to make the team react and play together, united by the same goal, so we can connect with the entire country and have them by our side too. At the end of the day, qualifying will be the outcome of our daily work towards that goal.

VW: The VNL Preliminary Phase is the last opportunity for Iran to earn World Ranking points and hopefully qualify for Paris 2024. Because of that, you will probably have to prioritize short-term results over a long-term process of building and developing the team. With the team needing to immediately get results, what’s going to be your approach? Do you think that taking care of the mentality and motivation is the most important thing now or do you believe there’s time for tactical and technical adjustments to be made?

Paes: The VNL is the last opportunity for Iran, but not only for us. We won’t have a lot of time to prepare, but that’s going to be a challenge every one is going to face. I believe that the matches against the highest-ranked national teams that are already qualified can have a lot of weight in determining who are going to take the last spots and that could be affected by the timing of those encounters. The mental side is always going to be pivotal for teams fighting for an Olympic berth, and even more with just a few weeks of preparation. We know Iran can play very aggressively and that’s typically a positive, but we’ll need to find a balance between that fighting spirit and being more controlled from an emotional standpoint. We don’t have enough time for deep changes and will try to focus on what’s essential.

VW: Looking at the VNL calendar, the opening week, in Rio, seems critical as you are going to face four direct opponents in the race for Paris – Serbia, Italy, Cuba and Argentina – who all rank above Iran, giving your team the opportunity to add points while seeing their opponents drop some as well. Do you plan on, somehow, prioritizing that first week? What’s the key to be able to start the tournament performing at a high level?

Paes: We’re very aware of how important the first week of the VNL will be. We see Serbia and Cuba as direct opponents, while Italy and Argentina not so much as they’re ranked a little higher, but they’re still looking to qualify and will certainly have their top players available that week, which will make the matches very difficult. We know we need to start strong and will need to have that in mind when we start preparing, especially from a physical standpoint. We’ll need to play simply, but effectively.

VW: What are your plans to prepare for the VNL? When will the team start training? Do you plan on having training camps or play friendly matches abroad?

Paes: We want to start as early as we can, with the first players coming in on April 22. We expect to have the entire roster available on April 30. We’re currently working on getting training camps and friendly matches ahead of each VNL round and I’m currently in talks with Bernardo so he can help for the first week.

VW: What are your thoughts on the players currently available for the Iranian national team? Did you ever coach any of the players in the clubs you worked for? Do you plan on bringing back any of the veterans who left the team in the last few years?

Paes: I’ve coached against several Iranian players, but never got to work with them. I think we have players with great potential, amazing physical tools and solid international experience. We also have some more veteran players who currently feature for top teams in Europe, competing in the CEV Champions League, and their presence will be essential for us to have a talented and consistent team. We understand the players will get to us at different technical and physical levels, so we’ll try and work individually with them at the start, especially from a physical standpoint. We haven’t finalized the roster yet, but we want to count on anyone who’s motivated and committed to help.

VW: Iran have had some remarkable victories over many of the top national teams in the world, but are yet to make it to the podium of a major international tournament, even if they showed the potential to do it. You’re obviously joining the program now, but what do you think is missing for them to take this next step?

Paes: I believe that despite the quality of the players and the national team, Iran is a relatively young country among the elite of international volleyball and the process of consolidation takes time and a lot of work with the younger players. I think they’ve continued to evolve since the start, but we need to set the process in a way that it starts with the Youth team and continues with the Senior squad. The last decade was also very competitive in men’s international volleyball and that might have been a factor for their lack of medals too.

Paes worked as an assistant under Bernardinho with France in 2021 (Photo: Iranian Volleyball Federation)

VW: You spent a lot of your career and your life in France. How special would it be to take part in the Olympics in a country that is so important in your life? If you manage to accomplish this goal, would you consider it the main achievement of your career so far?

Paes: Appearing at the Paris 2024 Games would be really special and it felt like it was going to happen before as I was part of France’s coaching staff with Bernardo before he left. But I like to think that the main victory of my career is always the next one. I try to keep looking forward and not look into the rearview that much. It would be amazing to compete in Paris. We’re far from it now, but are working to get there.


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