Lausanne, Switzerland, February 2, 2018 – France captain Benjamin Toniutti has found success almost everywhere he’s been. He was voted the Best Setter in the FIVB Volleyball World League in 2015 and 2017 – won both times by France – and has won European Championship titles at the U19, U21 and senior levels, and with his clubs he has won championship medals in Germany and Poland.
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Toniutti currently plays for Polish club ZAKSA Kedzierzyn-Kozle, who won both the Polish Championship and the Polish Cup in the 2016-17 season. ZAKSA started out the current season with 17 straight wins but suffered their first loss towards the end of January.
Were Zaksa feeling the pressure of their unbeaten run?
No, there was no particular pressure; it was more the media talking about this record. We were aware of it because it was historic, but it did not add pressure. We approached each match with the intention of winning it, without thinking of the record. But we knew very well that the run would end one day and that we would not win every game of the season.
This is your third season with Zaksa; do you feel the team is even stronger this season?
It's hard to say if we're stronger or worse than in previous seasons. Compared to other teams, I think we have the advantage of being a very stable squad; we haven’t changed many players in the last three years, so we have the advantage of knowing each other perfectly. We are a strong and tight group, and we are a tough team to play. It's always easier to play with players who have been around for a long time.
Was this stability a factor in extended your contract with Zaksa?
Yes, certainly. I feel good here and Zaksa have been one of the best clubs in Europe in the last three years. We won the Polish Championship two years in a row and we finished top of our Champions League pool. It's also a very well-structured club who demonstrated that they really wanted to keep me here.
You have not reached the Final Four of the Champions League yet; is this an important goal for the club?
At the moment, things are really good, as we won our first three games in a rather difficult group with Izmir, Trento and Maaseik. It would be a bit over-ambitious to say that we are going to win the Champions League because there are stronger teams than us, like Kazan, Macerata and Perugia, but we certainly want to go as far as possible. We know very well that in the Champions League, there is always a lot of luck in the draw when you get out of the group stage. If we get out of our group this year, we hope to have a kinder draw than last year because we had the worst draw possible then. We finished top of our group by beating Moscow, only to find ourselves up against Belgorod and Kazan if we progressed.
You played the World Club Championship in Poland in December but Zaksa suffered their first defeats of the season; what were your thoughts on this?
We lost to Macerata in a magnificent, knife-edge match, so we had some regrets about that. Then we lost to Sada Cruzeiro who had won the last three editions. These were defeats against teams that are among the best in the world, so of course there is disappointment, but I think we put on a good showing at the Club World Championship and we discovered what we need to do to get to that top level.
With France last year, you had a long international season. How has that affected you?
After the World Grand Champions Cup in Japan, I came directly to Poland without even going through France, because five days later, I had the Super Cup to play. I have not been to France since early September. I had no break. But I'm fine, fine. Physically, it's not always easy, but playing in a big club always gives you motivation. I'm happy to improve at this level, with a lot of responsibilities. And it's positive for the France team to see so many players in big clubs where they have the opportunity to win titles, which gives them maximum confidence when they are with the national team.
Let's talk about the French team and the draw for the FIVB World Championship...
It's pretty well-balanced, with three very strong teams – Brazil, Canada and us – and three teams that are slightly lower ranked but who play well. We saw China in the Olympic qualifiers in Japan (in May 2016) and they posed us many problems. It was the same with the Netherlands at the last European Championship, while Egypt is a team that frequently wins its continental championship, so we’ll have to be careful of them, too. So, it’s a fairly well-balanced group and with the formula of the World Championship, it will be necessary to win the maximum number of matches, otherwise it will be tough.
Does the team feel they have something to prove?
Definitely. It's like after the Olympics, we did not play well. We weren’t on our game, so we need to make amends. Also, our failure at the European Championship was seen as a tragedy. I guess that’s normal as we are a team now with high expectations. Last year, we played with a different lineup from previous years, but the benchmarks have changed a lot. We have to do everything we can to continue having good results.