Peru's national pride is riding on a dozen women competing in the world women's volleyball championship being played this week in Czechoslovakia.
Peruvian women's volleyball has won a following surpassed only by soccer -- no small accomplishment in a country where macho attitudes would make most men shrank away from watching a sport in which women compete.
But watch they do. More than 2 million Peruvians are expected to watch their team in the world championship finals -- in which on Friday they will meet world and Olympic champion China. The game will be broadcast live nationwide on two TV networks and, because of the time difference, most residents will forgo their lunch breaks to watch in front of Lima shop windows or in restaurants. For the match that cinched their advance to the four-teak finals, many Peruvians got up at 6 in the morning.
Peru has fielded solid women's teams for nearly two decades, consistently ending up among the top 19 teams in the world. In the 1982 world championship, with home court advantage, Peru was runner-up.
"Potentially good players grow like weeds," says Jesus Paniagua, a volley ball club sponsor and former member of the national volleyball federation. "The girls play because it is almost instinctive."
The sport is especially popular in Lima's shantytowns and working class neighborhoods. Twenty-two leagues, with four divisions each and more than 5,000 registered players, functioning in Lima, where volleyball is played on sand lots and concrete courts. However, most clubs are nothing more than 40 players with jerseys and a ball.
Although amateur, league play is highly competitive. The top players recruited for the major Lima league are usually guaranteed a good education, jobs with a corporate sponsor, special office hours, extended leaves and other privileges.
These rewards may seem modest compared to a professional soccer contract, but for a your woman coming out of a slum, it is a real triumph.
The aspiration is to reach the national team, which frequently travels abroad to championships and invitational tournaments. In the past, team members have been awarded apartments and cars for their strong showings and have received every honor the government has to offer.
Cecilia Tait, 24, from a fatherless family, was discovered 12 years ago playing on a sandlot in a shantytown. She was practically adopted by a major club. At 14, like most players now starring on the national team, she was placed in a special team of 30 promising girls, gleaned from the clubs and schools. Two years later, she made her debut on the youngest of three all-star teams representing the country.
Today the left-handed Tait is judged one of the strongest spikers in the world. "She's the Maradona of women's volleyball," says Paniagua of Tait, who is expected to sign with an Italian club after the championship.
Recent success has broadened the sport's appeal to other social classes. For instance, Gaby Perez del Solar, 18, comes from a well-to-do family. Until 1983, her sport was basketball. Then, "I saw how the volleyball girls traveled and I told my father, 'That's how I'd like to live, play and travel,'" she told a magazine here.
Soon afterward, she witched sports and within three months she joined the national team. At 6 feet 3, she has added a new dimension to the team, whose average height (5-8) is the smallest among the 16 teams at the world championships.
On the national team, players have to undergo rigorous seven-hour daily training sessions and even give up dating. The coach, Man Bok Park of South Korea, stresses temperance and discipline.
But what sets the women's volleyball team apart in the hearts of Peruvian fans is that even when they go up against powerhouses, they fight tenaciously for each point and ever give up.
For a small, troubled country like Peru with 20 million inhabitants, it is no mean compensation to be able to spike a ball against the major powers.
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