When Jefferson Santos Pereira hits the Copacabana sand for his second Olympic beach volleyball preliminary match tonight, he’ll be relying on a heavy home court advantage. After all, he grew up just a few miles away in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, honing his skills on the sand courts at Barra de Tijuca in western Rio.
Friends and family are planning to show up in force to support the 27-year-old right-hander, but this time they won’t be waiving the green and gold of the Bandeira Auriverde. Instead they’ll be sporting maroon and white, cheering for Santos Pereira’s adopted home, the Gulf State of Qatar.
Of all of the paths to this year’s Rio Games, few wander further than Santos Pereira’s. The Qatari-Brazilian began his career as a top junior player, playing in the World Junior Championships for Brazil before competing several years on the International Volleyball Federation’s (FIVB) pro circuit. But Santos Pereira’s dream was to play in the Olympics, and, according to ESPN Brazil, he struggled to find a place on Brazil’s national team. At 5 feet 10 inches, Santos Pereira was short by Brazilian volleyball standards—after all, he was competing for a spot with some of the best beach volleyball players in the world. After being passed over for the 2012 London Games, the dream started to flicker.
Then the young Brazilian found an unlikely ally in a mineral-rich nation halfway around the world. Though volleyball had been popular in Qatar for nearly a decade, beach volleyball was a relatively new phenomenon until 2013, when the Middle Eastern country hosted its first ever FIVB-sanctioned event. The event was so well-received that Qatar decided to grow the sport domestically. To get the ball rolling, they looked toward foreign talent, luring Santos Pereira and fellow Brazilian Tiago Santos away from their native country to help build a national team.
“I had to look elsewhere to play the World Tour and the Olympics,” Santos Pereira told ESPN Brazil. “I had to get to another country, and Qatar made me a proposal to go there, so I went.”
The adjustment was jarring for a man that had spent his entire life in the idyllic surroundings of southern Brazil. In addition to harsh desert heat, Santos Pereira found it “quite difficult” to communicate in Arabic, and was stranded in a house 40 minutes from his training facility.
Despite the culture shock, he naturalized in 2014, knowing that his last chance to compete in an Olympics—an Olympics in his former home city of Rio—was on the line.
After his partner Santos sustained a leg injury and returned to Brazil, Santos Pereira’s Olympic dreams once again hung in the balance, until he teamed with a lanky 19-year-old, Senegalese import Cherif Younousse. Together “the Sandstormers”, as they were dubbed by local media, started turning heads in Asia the rest of the world, finishing fifth in last year’s World Championships in the Netherlands and winning the FIVB Kush Island Open in Iran. Behind Younousse’s raw physical talent (the now 21-year-old is a lanky 6-foot 4-inches tall), and Santos Pereira’s experience, the duo rode their momentum into the Asian Volleyball Confederations Cup, defeating China in the final to become the first Qatari beach volleyball side to reach the Olympics.
The Sandstormers lost their first match in Rio to a 6th-ranked United States squad on Saturday, and must face Spain and Austria this week to reach the round of 16. Yet with eight third-place teams making the knockout rounds via a play-in game, Qatar only needs to defeat Austria—a team that ranks just three places higher in Olympic qualifying—to have a chance at advancing in Qatar beach volleyball’s inaugural Olympic voyage.
When asked about competing for a different nation on home turf, Santos Pereira jokes that he is part of the,“third Brazilian double.” But the Qatari-Brazilian does not take the unusual circumstances of his Rio return lightly, nor does he downplay the role of his adopted nation in getting him back home.
“Only those who followed my career know what I went through to get here,” wrote Santos Pereira on his Instagram page. “I moved in the dark for a country in search of a dream and fought against everything and everyone to make beach volleyball an Olympic sport across the world….It’s a dream come true. I’m coming.”